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Shaq's Last Hurrah

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 15, 2009

PHOENIX

First, Shaq was in a suit. He was the only all-star in a suit. And a tie. And vest . . . like it was a special occasion that needed to be formally observed. Second, he was more reflective than usual, slipping comfortably into stories about the good old days, even the days that weren't so good at the time. You always have to lean in and pay close attention when Shaq is speaking in that raspy baritone, but this was a particularly difficult listen because he had laryngitis.

Even so, his message was unmistakable. The Shaq farewell tour had kicked off on this, his 15th NBA All-Star Weekend. Don't get me wrong; there was nothing somber about his mood or the conversation. Shaquille O'Neal was as playful as ever, as energetic as ever, as mischievous as ever. But he also was coming to grips with the reality that this could be his final all-star appearance, that being adored by his peers, by the basketball public, and even by the international media is something he should take particular pleasure in now.

The years of sparring with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, whom Shaq will rejoin for Sunday's All-Star Game as a member of the West team, has turned to love taps. All is well. "All the drama in those years," Shaq said, "was planned by the powers that be . . . including me."

Shaq smiled and reached for the hot tea with lemon sitting in front of him.

"Bro, I'm soaking it all in, yes," Shaq said when I asked about the reflective mood. "I'm happy about it. . . . I don't know how many years I thought I would play when I came out of college. I knew I wanted my first deal to be $8 million for 10 years . . . $800,000 a year sounded fabulous. I wanted to build a house in Texas and buy my mother a house. Then Jon Koncak signed for $5 million a year and I said to myself, 'If this guy can get $5 million a year, I've got to get 15."

He's done worlds better than that, of course. Shaq's NBA salary is $21 million this season. Basketball has indeed been fabulous to Shaq and he's done the game fabulously in return. "He's been the face of the league since Michael Jordan retired," Chauncey Billups said. Yao Ming, who has become especially close to Shaq, said: "I can't imagine the game without Shaq. . . . No way it will be as fun without him."

The last year or two would be a whole lot more fun for Shaq if his current team, the Phoenix Suns, was the threat most of us thought it would be. But the way things are going, with Amare Stoudemire probably being traded Monday, the Suns are going to miss the playoffs. And Shaq, except for his rookie season, has never missed the playoffs.

"Can't figure it out," he said of the Suns' woes. "On paper, we're a pretty good team. Thing is, it's the first team I've been on where everybody really likes each other. We really do. We hang out together. There's no undermining talk from anybody. They're really nice people. I just don't know."

Missing the playoffs would be a regrettable way to end for a team as entertaining as Phoenix has been in recent years. A string of poor personnel decisions beginning four years ago slowly killed the Suns. But that won't diminish Shaq's legacy on or off the court. His time as a dominant player is eclipsed only by the dominance of his personality. "As great as he is," Billups said, "what's just as important has been his great heart, his great spirit, the youthful joy he brings to the game."

A very real problem for the NBA, after Shaq, is finding a star personality that sells. Who's going to be the cut-up? Who's going to mug for the cameras? Who's going to lift a 225-pound reporter (hmm, me in 1995) and carry him like a sack of groceries down the hallway, screaming like a madman while local television cameras roll? Who's going to carry on the foolishness and lighten the mood and make crazy commercials and rap freestyle and break dance? Who's going to chase squealing little children around hotel lobbies like a big Shaq Monster?

"Ever since I was in Miss Swann's fourth-grade class in Hinesville, Georgia," Shaq said, "I was silly . . . always silly. My mother told me being this silly would either make me a lot of money or get me in a lot of trouble. . . . I had this marketing professor at LSU who told me, 'Shaquille, big guys don't sell. . . . You're not going to make a lot of money off the court.' "

I told Shaq he needs to find that marketing professor at LSU. "I wanted to have Jordan's dominance, Magic's smile and my silliness," he said. "That was my formula."

Most players, when asked to identify an all-star with some of Shaq's crowd-pleasing charm, mention Dwight Howard of Orlando. "Dwight has some of the characteristics," Dwyane Wade, Shaq's former Miami Heat teammate said. "But there's never going to be another Shaq. Never."

David West of the Hornets said of Shaq: "My moment of clarity that I was a real, live NBA player came when I was lined up next to Shaq early in my rookie year. I was standing there with this mythic figure, and I just thought, 'This man is the face of the NBA.' I don't know who could possibly fill that void when he leaves."

Asked whether he sees an NBA player with that kind of force of personality, Shaq said, "I see a lot of guys trying to force it."

Sitting no more than 30 feet away from Shaq, Phil Jackson was talking to a handful of reporters and the subject of Shaq was broached. The coach of the West All-Stars, and of the Lakers during three drama-soaked championship years, was asked several times whether a recent lovefest after years of antagonizing each other means the three might reunite this season. Jackson's best answer was, "There's always room for old crocodiles who can roam the lane."

Told the line, Shaq laughed so hard his entire body shook, and he said, "He's right."

The topic of Kobe, Phil and Shaq is irresistible. Every lengthy conversation with any one of the three inevitably moves in that direction.

"We're the most dramatical duo," Shaq said, reaching for a way to describe the depth of the drama between him and Kobe. "We haven't played together for five years, yet everybody still talks about Shaq and Kobe, Kobe and Shaq. If we had our own reality show, it would be the best show ever. There are times we won't forget, times history will never forget. Sunday's going to be like old times, like good times. What happened? Me, Phil and Hollywood happened. I, at times, would say stuff just to be saying it. Phil would say stuff. . . . A lot of stuff was said, I think, just to keep the drama going. I'm more mature about it now. Let me say this, though: We never had a problem, not one, in practice or in the games. Never did, bro."

Would he tone it down if he had the chance to do it all over again? "I'd do it the same way," he said. "If we could go back in time, I'd go back to the year we lost [to Detroit in the Finals in 2004] and talk even more smack."

Nearby, Ray Allen of the Celtics is talking about Shaq being perhaps the last big man a team could dump the ball into in the low post and produce nearly 30 points and 15 rebounds almost on demand. Nobody since Wilt has been that big, that mobile, that powerful . . . that ridiculously enormous. "His shoe," Allen said, "is like a house for small animals."

Someone asked Shaq who will be the next great big man in the old-school tradition of big men. Without hesitation, Shaq says: "Yao Ming. I understand why everybody loves Yao. . . . He's an honorable man. He's a great man."

Reporters from Europe, from Asia, from Los Angeles and Miami surrounded Shaq to ask questions during Friday afternoon's media session with the all-stars. The conversation went on and on, past the appointed time. Some of the international journalists wanted pictures with Shaq, for keepsakes, and he obliged. The Life and Times of Shaquille O'Neal is what the day turned into, and nothing could have been more appropriate.

No, there will never be anything like Shaquille O'Neal. "I'll sit down one day," he said, "and open a book . . . and I'll see top five in scoring . . . not bad. Top 10 in blocked shots . . . not bad. Four or five rings . . . not bad. Everybody liked him . . . not bad."

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