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?