Got Skillz: Shaq, Ron Artest, and Michael Jackson

As I’d imagine most people reading this did, I found out about Michael Jackson’s death while watching the 2009 NBA draft, and it made it considerably more difficult for me to care which cities Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan would be playing professional basketball in. I never have emotional reactions to celebrity deaths, but Michael was different. His personal life had been in such disarray for the 10 years leading up to his death that far too many people forgot his true impact. He was, despite his troubles, still the second-most ubiquitous act in pop history, behind only the Beatles. Depending on your view, either “I Want You Back” or “Billie Jean” is the greatest pop song of all time. The shortlist of the most important American musical icons of the 20th century basically goes Sinatra, Elvis, Dylan, and Michael. So, yeah, his death, much like his life and music, had a bit of an impact on me. He also impacted two of the most fascinating and compelling personalities in recent NBA history, one of whom recorded a song with him in 1995, while the other released a highly personal, if considerably awkward, tribute song shortly after Jackson’s death.

It’s oddly appropriate that these two players are Shaquille O’Neal and Ron Artest, because you couldn’t find two pro athletes that better represent the dualities of Jackson’s public persona. Shaq wanted nothing more than to be universally loved, and not just in the basketball sphere. He made rap albums that spawned songs like the one from which this column takes its name. He starred in family-friendly movies like Kazaam. When he signed with the Lakers in 1996, it seemed only logical—what better place for the most magnetic personality in the NBA to go to explore his entertainment ambitions than Hollywood? Artest’s career has been much more troubled, and in a lot of ways mirrors the tumultuous latter part of Jackson’s career. His involvement in the most infamous on-court brawl in NBA history has given his name a certain stigma that he hasn’t quite managed to shake, try as he might.

Jackson and O’Neal released “2 Bad” in 1995, before Shaq began what was to be his final season with the Orlando Magic. The song appeared on Jackson’s HIStory, a wildly uneven album that features some of his best work (“Earth Song,” the title track, and his rendition of “Smile”) and some of his most controversial (“They Don’t Care About Us”). The record was widely panned for being overindulgent, which wasn’t an unwarranted criticism. Jackson had beaten his first child-molestation charges a few years prior and was by this time psychotically distrustful of the media, and as a result his music grew exponentially more insular and paranoid. “2 Bad” itself is largely unremarkable. Jackson’s attempts throughout the ’90s to update his sound for the hip-hop generation typically resulted in grating, hookless mush, and this song is one of the worst offenders. Shaq mostly plays hype man, dropping synergistic gems like “I’m undefeated when MJ’s on my team.” There’s one funny line about his inability to replicate Michael’s dance moves, but that’s about all I can say in its favor.

MJ’s decision to work with Shaq may very well have been a marketing choice—he was a popular and likeable athlete who had released a few albums of his own by this time, so why not shoot for that crossover appeal? But I like to think that Jackson saw a little of his former self in Shaq’s desire to be all things to all people. In any case, the collaboration foreshadowed Shaq’s own ascent to Jackson’s level of dominance in the immediate post-Jordan era. The Lakers’ dynasty at the turn of the decade was his Thriller. Three straight Finals MVPs, a PER consistently hovering around 30 in both the regular season and playoffs, averages of 30 points and 15 rebounds for two of those postseasons: it all adds up to one of the most staggering individual stretches ever. This run has become one of the biggest points of reference for measuring the performance of big men in the league today, just as any smash album will inevitably have its performance stacked up to Thriller.

(The parallels don’t stop there, either: Shaq’s 2006 title with the Heat is Bad, a solid-enough follow-up thats only a disappointment when measured against his own unrepeatable past; his stints with the Suns, Cavs, and Celtics were Dangerous, HIStory, and Invincible, each containing flashes of greatness but with increasingly diminishing returns.)

Photo courtesy of 2DopeBoyz.

It’s easy to see why Artest was also drawn to Jackson. Artest has had a very respectable NBA career, but six years after the fact, most casual fans still primarily associate him with the infamous Auburn Hills melee of 2005. It’s something he’ll never fully escape, just as Jackson will never completely live down the child-abuse allegations and tabloid reports of his bizarre personal life. Artest alludes to this on his single “Michael”: “I understand controversy/I understand words try and hurt me/they said I ain’t worth it/they say you ain’t worth it.” The song is actually sort of decent, all things considered. Artest’s flow is limited and simplistic, but it;s coming from an honest place, and the guitar-driven beat isn’t half bad. It could totally pass for one of the introspective album tracks on a Game album or something.

(WARNING: “Michael” contains some NSFW language.)

Since the release of “Michael,” Artest has acted out exactly the type of personal redemption story that Jackson had hoped for. When he died, MJ was deep into rehearsals for a 50-concert residency in London, which would have been his first major live performances since 2001 and the start of a planned three-year comeback tour. If you haven’t seen This is It, the 2009 film documenting these rehearsals, I highly recommend it. Contrary to media reports of Jackson showing up late and being strung out on painkillers, the film finds his voice, dance moves, and demeanor in vintage form. The production was to be one of the most technically elaborate in music history, and it’s not a stretch to say that, had he survived, the tour would have vaulted him right back into the forefront of popular culture.

When Artest signed with the Lakers a few weeks after Jackson’s death, he chose the jersey number 37, which he said was a reference to the number of weeks Thriller spent atop the charts. And as if winning his first NBA title the following season wasn’t enough, Artest auctioned off his championship ring for charity. He has since opened up throughout the media about his mental health problems and encouraged others to seek counseling. His work on behalf of mental-health awareness earned him the NBA’s 2011 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Maybe Jackson would have had a similar public rebirth. We’ll never know for sure, but if nothing else, his music helped to turn around the image of one of the NBA’s most polarizing players.

When Jackson died, much of the public finally felt okay about moving past his personal problems and rediscovering his music. But the truth of the matter is that you cannot understand one side of MJ’s personality without also considering the other, and the fact that both Shaquille O’Neal and Ron Artest have dedicated at least some part of their musical careers to him speaks volumes about the reach and scope of his influence.

Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.