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Shaquille O'Neal is still having fun after all these years

Boston's Shaquille O'Neal may not be the basketball force he once was, but he's still having as much fun as he did the day he came into the NBA.
Boston's Shaquille O'Neal may not be the basketball force he once was, but he's still having as much fun as he did the day he came into the NBA. (Brian Snyder/reuters)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:10 AM

Every one of my NBA-insider friends keeps reminding me that Shaquille O'Neal, whose visit to Washington on Saturday might be one of his last as an NBA player, is not the Shaq I knew.

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When it comes to purely playing basketball two months shy of 39 - provided he doesn't pick up and dunk JaVale McGee through the rim - I might begin to defer on that thought.

The greatest center of his era - maybe the game's most indomitable, unique force over 7 feet since Wilt Chamberlain - O'Neal is now down to 21-plus minutes per game.

Once the physically imposing giant in the middle that led three franchises to the NBA Finals and won four championships in two cities, he's now on his fourth team in five seasons. "The Big Journeyman" is hoping beyond hope Kevin Garnett can help him win another ring before Kobe Bryant equals Michael Jordan's six or Tim Duncan beats him to five.

But that's just the game, which has nothing to do with the Shaq I know.

Rik Smits and every other inferior NBA big man and I have something in common: We got dunked on by the Diesel. No, honest. Really.

Maybe I should explain.

In the summer of 2000, fresh off his first title in Los Angeles and an MVP season, I agreed to ghostwrite Shaq's autobiography. I spent 10 days in Orlando, interviewing the big fella at his offseason home for upwards of 8 to 10 hours a day, siphoning every imaginable anecdote I could out of him, his parents who raised him and the people close to him. Or at least till the Entenmann's Louisiana Crunch Cake on the kitchen counter was gone every night.

Spending 10 days with the Daddy, I quickly found out, had its own narrative.

"Yo, Mike, you got sneaks? We need you to play three-on-three in the backyard with my boys. You can be that Jimmy Chitwood cat from 'Hoosiers.' "

Yes, there were humiliating situations I was thrust into - including Shaq's affectionately proclaimed "white boy dance-off" against Shaq's personal chef, Thomas, who wanted nothing to do with "the Cabbage Patch" or "the Running Man."

In those 10 days - and several dozen others the past 16 years - I also knew the Shaq who pulled over outside an Orlando barbershop, in the city's most impoverished area, where he had gone to get a trim.


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