Don’t let hindsight guide your memory of Shaquille O’Neal in Phoenix. The largest personality in league history landed with the Suns thanks to a misguided trade that sent out Shawn Marion and altered the Suns’ identity drastically in the wrong direction. O’Neal’s arrival in Phoenix marked the end of the Seven Seconds or Less era, but not by any fault of his own.
The 2008-09 season was the last great Shaq year. The big man averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds en route to the final All-Star berth of his career at age 36. Despite playing no more than three quarters of the season for nearly a half-decade straight, O’Neal was rejuvenated in Phoenix. Sound familiar?
By the time 2008 came around, the lore of Aaron Nelson was firmly entrenched in the Valley and around NBA diehards. It took working with a superstar like Shaq for Nelson’s name to become widely known. These days, O’Neal is one of the first guys who comes up in any conversation about Nelson.
I love the way O’Neal described Nelson in this New York Times feature from 2009: “He’s not one of those old guys who just gives you ice and stim. He actually knows his stuff. When I first came in, he laughed. He said, ‘You know what, you don’t have a hip problem.’ ”
No, it wasn’t a hip injury that affected O’Neal in the late-2000s. It was his behind.
Here’s how Nelson described the work they did on O’Neal’s glutes to improve his strength there: “everything that he does, from being able to run straight ahead, to go side-to-side, to pivoting, stuff that he does normally. Rebounding and coming down, he’s got to be able to stabilize. That muscle is a very important muscle, and if that’s weak, then you’ve got a lot of other compensations.’’
This was just one of many discoveries Nelson made in helping O’Neal find the juice for one last great season. But what Nelson did with O’Neal wasn’t any different than any other Suns player. What’s so cool about The Gospel of Nellie is that word got around, and players encouraged their teammates to work with Nelson to improve their health. For O’Neal, it was Grant Hill, who we featured in Part One of this series on Tuesday, who encouraged him to take seriously what Nelson preached.
Nelson’s work with O’Neal reinforces the fact that he wasn’t reinventing the wheel, he was simply ahead of his time in the NBA (and in pro sports generally). O’Neal praised him repeatedly for going deeper (figuratively and literally) than other trainers, thinking critically about sports science, and not being overly reliant on technology.
Nelson explained his process to the East Valley Tribune in 2008, and nothing sounds overly complex:
“First we want to increase the range of motion and flexibility. We take the tight or overactive muscles and lengthen them, and take the dormant or weak muscles and activate them or make them stronger. It’s all in the name of balance, to make the body work as it was designed and eliminate overcompensation.”
With O’Neal all stretched out and strong, 2008-09 brought fans one last season’s worth of awesome Shaq moments, and allowed him to climb almost to the top five on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Easy, right? Maybe, but if others knew how to treat O’Neal’s massive frame, he wouldn’t have tailed off in his mid-30s the way he did. O’Neal came up at a time when superstars played massive minutes, and he played deep into the playoffs from basically 1995-2006. There may not have been any way for O’Neal to sustain elite performance for two decades, but Nelson’s deft touch makes you wonder what could have been.