BOSTON -- The tradition goes back more than a half-century. Red Auerbach pretty much originated the now-hallowed concept of a sixth man. It was a designation signifying devotion to the team and unselfishness, a 1950s-60s version of ubuntu, if you will. Frank Ramsey originated the role, which was then passed on to John Havlicek (or "Hondo"), who was the sixth man on a handful of Celtics title teams.
There was no logical successor in the 1970s, although Nate Archibald once anointed Jeff Judkins as "Baby Hondo." In hindsight, that appears to be a bit of an overreach. But Kevin McHale stepped into the role in the early 1980s, and, in 1984 and 1985, won the NBA Sixth Man Award, given to the player the media deems to be the most important reserve in the league. (The award was first handed out in 1983 to Philly's Bobby Jones.)
Then, in 1985, Bill Walton came to Boston. He was eight years removed from a season in which he averaged 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, a stunning 5 assists and 2.5 blocks a game. He was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player that season, 1977-78, and, in his first (and only healthy) season with the Celtics, he took the Sixth Man Award in 1985-86.
To this day, he remains the only player in NBA history to win both the MVP and Sixth Man awards. Could Shaquille O'Neal be the second?
Like Walton, Shaq is coming to Boston at the end of his career.
Like Walton, Shaq has an MVP award; his is from the 1999-2000 season.
Like Walton, Shaq was named to the NBA's top 50 all-time players list more than a decade ago.
Like Walton, Shaq wants to win another championship (Walton had won one with the Blazers in 1977) and, like Walton, Shaq professes to be a student of the game.
And Shaq wants nothing to do with the Sixth Man Award.
Of course, that would presume he would qualify by coming off the bench for the 2010-11 Boston Celtics, something that hasn't been determined as of yet. Then again, in one of the years McHale won the award, he was a sometime starter due to injuries to Cedric Maxwell.
So Shaq, ready to take your place in Celtics history alongside the other great sixth men?
"No,'' he said rather emphatically after practice Monday. "About four years ago, I gave up on the concept of winning individual awards. I'm focusing on the big one at the end of the year."
But, Shaq was asked, didn't he think the Sixth Man Award was more of a team award than an individual award? Again, the answer was the same.
"It's not for me,'' he said. "What's important to me is the six balls I have on the desk of my office at the top of a big building,'' he said. Asked to elaborate, he said, "I'm the CEO of the company. I just don't have the building yet." Or, by extension, the office or the desk.
(I later ran these quotes past a Celtics public relations official who sat in on the brief interview. The official verified the quotes. Neither of us had any idea what Shaq was talking about. Six balls? He won three NBA Finals MVPs. He has one regular-season MVP award. He has won four NBA titles. Not sure where the six comes in.)
Shaq is coming to the Celtics at an age (38) where, for really the first time in his career, he is likely to be a reserve, especially when Kendrick Perkins returns to the lineup. He was 28 when he won the 2000 MVP award. Walton was 33 -- a very old 33 -- when he joined the Celtics in 1985. But he not only was a force off the bench, he also was a terrific addition in terms of camaraderie and chemistry. (OK, he served as the Official Human Dartboard for the team's many pranksters, chiefly McHale, but he was undeniably popular.) Walton had won his only MVP at the age of 25, but foot injuries prevented him from ever becoming the ubercenter that he could have been (and was, for about one or two seasons in Portland). He played 80 games in 1985-86, a Ripkenesque standard of durability for the fragile, brittle big man. His previous high was 67 games the season before with the Clippers. He played in only 10 games for the 1986-87 Celtics after yet another operation and slogged through the playoffs -- nowhere near the player he had been the previous season. That was it.
Walton eventually embraced the sixth man concept because he came to understand what it meant, both individually and as a part of the Celtics' storied history.
Shaq is embracing everything but the award. He wants to fit in. He wants to help. He wants to do what he can to win another ring. Just don't ask him to clear some more hypothetical space on that hypothetical desk in that hypothetical skyscraper for another award. He ain't interested. At least not now.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.