Mike Wise: Shaquille O'Neal Is Big but Still Growing

Suns center Shaquille O'Neal reaches over to steal a rebound from the Wizards' Andray Blatche. O'Neal had 29 points in last night's Phoenix win.
Suns center Shaquille O'Neal reaches over to steal a rebound from the Wizards' Andray Blatche. O'Neal had 29 points in last night's Phoenix win. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Mike Wise
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Shumate, the head scout with the Phoenix Suns and a former New Jersey prep star, threw Shaquille O'Neal a softball last night, saying Newark's own "might" be among the Garden State's top 10 players of all time, somewhere behind former Seton Hall star Anthony Avent.

On cue, O'Neal countered, "It goes me, my father, my other father, his father and then Anthony Avent."

Amare Stoudemire and Matt Barnes broke up laughing in the visitor's locker at Verizon Center, where the NBA's most physically imposing comedian still holds court, less than two months from his 37th birthday, months from his 17th postseason.

"The journey is winding down," conceded his bodyguard the past 13 years, Jerome Crawford, who used to steer O'Neal away from trouble as a youth. (Until the big fella coaxed "My Uncle Jerome" to leave his job as a Newark homicide detective and live the large life of his employer.)

"Then again, every time people think he's done he proves them wrong."

Nothing can make you feel more ancient in this game than Shaq inching gradually toward 40, the idea that even 7-foot-1, 325-pound, plus-size children can't play forever -- even the guy who dropped 29 points and, late in the fourth quarter, the hammer on the Wizards.

He was asked if he still enjoys backing down bone-thin kids like JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche, dunking at will. O'Neal, whose contract expires in 2010, replied: "Yeah, because I know that in 700 days it might be over for me. My thing is just have fun now and then we'll just see what happens. My lease is up after two years now, so if I get a new lease, I might take it on. If not, we'll just have to do something else.

"I feel like I can play three or four more years," he added. "I've got a new medical staff that does stuff that I haven't really had before. As you can see, I'm moving left, I'm moving right, I'm running, I'm jumping, I'm dunking, I'm getting up and hanging on the rim and getting techs, and I haven't felt this good in about two years."

O'Neal said he would like to accrue another one or two championship rings to go with the three he won with Kobe and the Lakers and the one he won with Dwyane Wade in Miami. After that, it's all about the legacy.

He entered the game against the Wizards needing just 35 points to supplant Hakeem Olajuwon as the seventh-leading scorer in NBA history. He's got more points than anyone currently playing (26,941). Kareem and Hakeem are the only other two players in the game's annals to score at least 26,000 points, grab more than 11,500 rebounds and block more than 2,500 shots.

"Centers, he's got to be top five," said Grant Hill, his Suns teammate who, like O'Neal, is nearly considered an NBA relic at 36. "Maybe Russell and Chamberlain, you give them the edge for different reasons. But even then, you got to put him with at least Chamberlain."

"A legend," Caron Butler called him afterward. Wrapping up a streaking Butler blatantly along the baseline at one point in the first half, O'Neal playfully kissed the Wizards' star on the forehead. This came a few days after the Knicks' 5-foot-8 Nate Robinson tried to comically jump into O'Neal, who discarded Little Nate as if he had hit a force field.

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