By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:10 AM
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.
Pointing to two boys of maybe 8 years old as they took turns bouncing a basketball down the sidewalk (the shorter one wore a No. 34 Lakers top), he slowly pulled his truck alongside them.
The boys nervously looked to see who was inside. As the tinted window on my side finally exposed us, Shaq contorted his torso so his head nearly came out the passenger's seat window.
"Fool, whatch you doin' wearin' my jersey!"
I will never be able to properly describe the stupefying look of awe on that kid's ashen face, except to say his wide-eyed pupils were dilated and his jaw was fully agape as he mouthed one word:
O'Neal stopped the car and he played with the boys for several minutes, dribbling in circles and then over their heads - like the Globetrotters' Meadowlark Lemon. They gladly chased and laughed until they almost cried. Before they got their ball back, he made each promise to stay in school and don't hang around the lost kids on the corner who sold those little white balls as much as their souls.
"Bye, Mr. Shaq O'Neal," they said, waving.
Realizing every kid in Orlando had a Shaq story to tell that summer, I needed my own.
I grabbed my sneaks.
We played three-on-three in his back yard, where I kept feeding him and he kept throwing it back out until I shot and chipped paint off the rim.
Eventually, the big man said he needed to get in shape. We shuttled in his truck to a Baptist church gym about 20 minutes away, where Dennis Scott and Chucky Atkins, decent players in their day, were waiting.
A hodgepodge of NBA players and shirtless, teenage kids who had been out on Jet Skis all day, replete with beach-blond hair down to their shoulders, went up and down the court.
My only problem: I was no longer on Shaq's team.
I became acutely aware of this when I threw the ball away under my own basket. Intercepting at half court, Shaq began dribbling, steam seemingly coming from his nostrils.
I always wondered what dark things went through Dikembe Mutombo or Will Perdue's head when they were the only person between Shaq and the rim, how many milliseconds before they had decided to spare their own lives by deciding not to take a charge.
To preserve myself and my pride, I decided I would give a good, hard swipe at the ball as he dribbled toward me. If I was successful, the Diesel would be fooled by a Honda Fit. If not, I could always say I tried and lived.
But somehow, as I met Shaq at about the free throw line - he never once took his eyes off the rim - he used that same five-foot dribble he used against the kids, the ball bouncing high over my right arm, maybe 12 feet in the air.
Turning around, I glanced Shaq - now in midair behind me. He caught that ball on the other side of my body, throwing it down so maliciously with his right hand I can't believe the backboard support didn't crumble.
The sight was so awesome - a perfect blend of force and flair. It's probably the only time I actually envied Rik Smits.
"Man, you really got me on that one," I said later, as we polished off another Louisiana Crunch Cake in his living room.
"Oh, you were under the basket on that play?" Shaq said. "Damn, Mike, I didn't even see you. You got to get your game together."
It is 11 years later now, almost 19 years since a smiling kid from LSU shook David Stern's hand and profoundly changed the commissioner's league - showing us all it's okay to smile instead of just scowl and sneer, showing us that goofballs and 39-year-olds going on 12 can win championships, too. You don't have to take a child's game so serious.
That's the Shaq I still know.