When the NBA season officially “resumes” on July 30, it will have been more than four months since I last watched LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and several hundred other of my closest friends play meaningful basketball. All things considered, the NBA’s absence has been a relatively minor concern in the COVID-19 era. But for those of us accustomed to loosely structuring eight months of our lives around the league each year, the void has been eerie and disorienting, and I for one have more than once found my hoops-addled brain venturing to places I would not have ever expected it to go.
One such venture was prompted by this spring’s arrival of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max service, which boasts such beloved properties as all eight Harry Potter flicks, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the Studio Ghibli library, and the complete run of Friends. HBO Max also offers an entire “hub” devoted to DC Comics, including all of the films that make up what has come to be known as the “DC Extended Universe,” or DCEU. Idly browsing these films back when the service launched in May, I couldn’t help but notice the inclusion of Steel, a 1997 Shaquille O’Neal vehicle in which Shaq Diesel plays John Henry Irons, a weapons designer who fights evildoers under the superhero alter ego of Steel. (Steel has recently vanished from HBO Max entirely, but its initial inclusion in the service’s DC library is well documented.)
Confronted with this information, my mind made a series of leaps—come along with me, dear reader. If, in the DCEU, the human being that we know as Shaquille O’Neal exists as John Henry Irons, this means that in said universe, the human being that we know as Shaquille O’Neal never played in the NBA. Steel/Irons/not-Shaq’s existence in the DCEU may not technically be “canon,” but as far as I know it’s not not canon, and as writer Abraham Riesman recently pointed out, the DCEU concept itself actually started as a joke made by a critic.
Following in that tradition, I decided to assemble a speculative history of professional basketball and global culture more broadly—a universe within the DC Extended Universe in which a certain four-time NBA champion and most dominant big man of his generation never existed. What follows is a timeline of what would have happened if Shaq were really Steel.
June 1992: The Orlando Magic, winners of the NBA draft lottery, select Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, widely considered the best center prospect to enter the league since David Robinson. Mourning goes on to win Rookie of the Year unanimously.
June 1993: By way of a draft-day trade, the Magic select Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, the dazzling point guard out of Memphis State. Mourning and Hardaway are an instant sensation and immediately jell both on and off the court, with Hardaway’s flashy play and camera-ready charisma perfectly complemented by Mourning’s brilliant fundamentals and defensive-minded stoicism.
July 1996: Mourning spurns a lucrative offer from the Los Angeles Lakers to re-sign with Orlando, and later that summer he leads Team USA to a gold medal at the Olympics. The taciturn star’s on-court success fails to translate into widespread commercial appeal, however. Elaborate Mourning-centric ad campaigns for Pepsi and Reebok soon bankrupt both companies, and Mourning’s quixotic musical collaborations with Fu-Schnickens and Method Man fail to sell.
May 1997: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, acquired in a draft-day trade with Charlotte in exchange for center Vlade Divac, becomes the first player drafted straight out of high school to win Rookie of the Year, averaging 22 points per game and breaking the NBA rookie record for field goal attempts. Without a serviceable big man, however, Bryant’s Lakers remain mired in the lottery.
September 1997: Pepsi’s collapse has made Coca-Cola one of the world’s most powerful companies, and it is pursuing ever wider cross-market domination. The erstwhile soft drink king acquires Apple, which has been struggling to compete with Microsoft. (Apple founder Steve Jobs stays on as CEO.) The CokeMac debuts the following year, sweeping the industry with its colorful design and “Think Different (but Keep Drinking Coke)” ad campaign.
June 1998: After winning his sixth NBA championship, Gotham Bulls guard Michael Jordan retires for the second time. (The first came in the fall of 1993, amid rumors that Jordan had fallen into debt after losing a series of high-stakes golf matches to the notorious criminal impresario Lex Luthor.) Bulls coach Phil Jackson signs with the Orlando Magic.
June 1998: Hoping to fill their hole at center, the Lakers draft Michael Olowokandi with the first overall pick. After a disappointing rookie season marked by repeated clashes with Kobe Bryant, Olowokandi abruptly quits basketball.
February 1999: Nike, having gobbled up most of Reebok’s market share, follows Coca-Cola’s lead into the tech sphere and acquires the upstart search engine Google.
1999–2001: The Jackson-coached Orlando Magic, led by Mourning and Hardaway, win three consecutive NBA titles.
April 2000: Nike’s primary remaining competitor, Adidas, declares bankruptcy, having failed to successfully transition into the growing world of online sales. The move follows months of Adidas customers complaining about not being able to find the company’s website through Google.
May 2001: Coca-Cola revolutionizes portable music listening with the introduction of the CokePod.
June 2001: Hoping to fill their hole at center, the Lakers select Kwame Brown with the first overall pick. After a disappointing rookie season marked by repeated clashes with Kobe Bryant, Brown abruptly quits basketball.
June 2002: The Sacramento Kings, having lost to the Magic the previous year in an epic seven-game series, finally break through and defeat the Magic in the finals, once again in seven games. Nike—hoping to synergize with the global popularity of the “Greatest Show on Court” Kings, a team led by Nike pitchman and finals MVP Chris Webber—announces plans to relocate its rapidly growing Google operations to Sacramento.
June 2003: Hoping to fill their hole at center, the Lakers select Darko Milicic with the second overall pick. After a disappointing rookie season marked by repeated clashes with Kobe Bryant, Milicic abruptly quits basketball, although not before inspiring an influential blog.
October 2003: Alonzo Mourning is forced to retire due to a kidney disease, prematurely ending the career of the greatest center of a generation. The following year Mourning undergoes a successful kidney transplant and joins Inside the NBA, where he sheds his prickly reputation and quickly becomes one of the most beloved television analysts in sports history.
March 2005: Nike buys Facebook and moves the company to Sacramento.
April 2005: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, attempting to win favor with Nike, moves his company to Sacramento.
May 2005: Coca-Cola buys Amazon.
June 2005: The Spurs win the NBA title.
July 2005: Miami Heat president Pat Riley, frustrated by his team’s inability to get over the playoff hump despite the presence of talented guard Dwyane Wade, retires from basketball. Riley suffers personal embarrassment later that summer when the Daily Bugle publishes photos of him hanging out on Lex Luthor’s yacht.
January 2006: Kobe Bryant scores 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
June 2006: The Spurs win another title.
June 2008: Former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson gets elected mayor of San Francisco, promising to revitalize the city’s struggling economy. Johnson later resigns in disgrace after trying to sell the city’s public schools to Lex Luthor.
June 2009: The Spurs somehow win yet another title.
July 2010: Free agents LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attempt to sign with the Metropolis Knicks, only to have their deals scuttled at the eleventh hour by Knicks owner James Dolan, who demands that his general manager acquire aging stars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash instead. James and Wade instead sign with the Kings, cementing Sacramento’s status as America’s hottest city.
August 2010: Phil Jackson comes out of retirement for a second stint of coaching the Kings.
2011–15: The Kings win five consecutive titles.
April 2013: Kings great Chris Webber is elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
April 2016: Knicks guard Kobe Bryant, having announced his retirement at the start of the season and having struggled with injuries for much of his final campaign, scores 60 points in his final game, shooting 22-for-50 from the field and 6-for-21 from 3. After the game Dolan immediately offers Bryant a three-year, $120 million extension. Bryant still opts to retire, now widely considered the greatest player of his generation to never win a title.
May 2016: The Kings are ousted in the Western Conference finals by the upstart Golden State Warriors. Dwyane Wade announces his retirement after the series.
June 2016: The Warriors win the NBA title, providing a much-needed boost for the famously down-and-out Bay Area.
July 2016: Central City Thunder forward Kevin Durant signs with the Kings. In a message typed on his signature-model CokePhone 11 and delivered on the Nike-owned Instagram platform, Durant expresses a desire to move to Sacramento so as to further his business interests in the “tech space.” The move is widely decried by fans, many of whom were hoping Durant would sign with Golden State.
May 2017: Greta Gerwig’s Wonder Woman, a biopic of Wonder Woman, opens to rave reviews and record-setting box office returns. The film marks a turning point in Gerwig’s career after years of the writer-director trying and failing to make Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical film about her own experiences as a high schooler in Sacramento shortly after the Kings had won their first NBA title. (According to Gerwig, several executives derided her script’s depiction of a struggling middle-class family in an economically blighted Sacramento as “pure fantasy” and “too unbelievable,” and suggested she move the setting to San Francisco.)
July 2019: After winning three titles with the Kings, Durant leaves Sacramento to go play with Kyrie Irving for unclear reasons. The good news is that it’s in Seattle, a great city that has an NBA franchise.
May 2020: Gerwig’s hotly anticipated Wonder Woman follow-up, Steel, a biopic of Steel that is a gritty reboot of the 1997 classic of the same name, debuts on Coca-Cola’s new streaming service, HBO Max.
For more of Slate’s time-space-shenanigans culture coverage, listen to a spoiler-filled discussion of the movie Palm Springs.