You show up at practice to see how the big man is feeling, to glean some of Shaquille O'Neal's wit and off-kilter wisdom. Maybe a one-liner or two, in which the indomitable center of the Los Angeles Lakers refers to himself as "The Diesel" or "The Daddy," anything to get you past that first deadline.
And then he blurts out, "I feel a sign of disrespect, I really do."
"Because they make promises and they don't stand for them."
What promises? The Lakers?
"When I first got here, I was told, 'You win, you get whatever you want.' And I was like, 'Okay. For real?' "
You ask him again to clarify. "Listen, I feel a sign of disrespect. No other center in the league has done more than I've done. I got my last extension three years ago. And that's up."
Nineteen points, 19 rebounds, 3 blocks, a 3-1 series lead after Thursday's 92-85 Game 4 victory. Part of you wants to tell Jerry Buss to hurry up and pay. Or else.
Another part of you wants to ask O'Neal what he is thinking. He is still under contract for two more seasons and, by league rules, cannot sign another three-year extension until after July 1. This cannot be about money.
Besides, he is creating leverage for himself almost every night this spring, using that 7-foot-1, 340-something frame to pulverize inferior basketball players. His team, basically Showtime Revisited for the past five years, was but six wins away from another championship prior to Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against a team led by Kevin Garnett, the league's reigning most valuable player.
Winning, a healthy family and a lifetime supply of Nestle Crunch is not enough?
"It's not about that," O'Neal said. "I go home and I got a beautiful wife and beautiful kids. My son actually thinks I'm a superhero. Shareef watched 'Steel' the other day," he said, referring to a movie featuring O'Neal that did not quite make it to Cannes. "He came downstairs and saw the real thing. He really thinks I'm a superhero. That's better than any championship I've ever won."
So what is it about? Kobe? Referees? Music and film critics?
"None of that."
Now, before the Shaq-wants-out theory gains steam, know this: O'Neal is not going anywhere. Not if the Lakers want to continue filling the building and adding banners to Staples Center's rafters.
More likely, Shaq, being one of the most sensitive big men since Shrek, needs to be shown some love. Nice uplifting homilies about how Buss, the owner, insists again and again he retire a Laker. This should be followed promptly by financial tenderness, the way to every elite athlete's heart.
The Lakers have said they will ensure O'Neal is annually the highest-paid player in the game. But you wonder if they're using Garnett's extension of last summer as the benchmark. In that deal, Garnett goes from $28 million one season to $17 million the next, followed by annual incremental raises. You could see the O'Neal camp raising a fuss if they wanted him to take a pay cut in any year of an extension.
Either way, this is more about the team's tone than dollars. Not even a man who can devour an entire Louisiana crunch cake by himself will go hungry.
Once the Lakers are able to sign the big lug to another three-year option on July 1, they should. But the tenor of their contracts talks so far has been more wait and see. You wonder if this tact by the club has not motivated O'Neal to go out and prove he still is the X-factor in the playoffs, the player no one else can guard or defend, the one guy who nullifies home-court advantage when he is getting position and the ball.
He has joked with writers recently, saying he thinks he's getting traded. But beneath the humor, a small part of him wants to know they would never dangle him in the open market for a Jermaine O'Neal or some other post player that can't get to the rim in the final minutes of a physical playoff game.
Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager, is not blind. He has seen the league get younger and quicker while O'Neal has at times grown older and slower. He also has seen one of the last great American-born centers, maybe one of the top three of all time, find his game and passion again.
Personally, I think O'Neal realizes he has maybe three to five good years left. He is 32, but the toll taken on his body from all the punishment probably puts his spine at about 45 and his anterior cruciates at maybe 40. He briefly got off the path of becoming the most important player of his generation. Now he sees that path again, as clearly as the Lakers see another title. He probably wants to maximize his talent and not be taken for granted. He wants the ball.
"When I don't got it no more, I'm going to come in and say, 'I don't got it no more. I'm going to do something else,'" he said. "But I still got it. I'm going to have it until I'm 37 -- I promise you. Then, at 37, if I still want to play, I'll do all that other stuff. But I'm not Luc Longley, I'm not Mitch Kupchak. I'm not comfortable taking 10 shots now."
So you want to be viewed as one of the greatest?
"That term has been given away so loosely now, it's not a term I really worry about it anymore," he said. "When I was young, to be called the greatest, whoa. But now, you guys call [Tim] Duncan the greatest. You call Jermaine O'Neal the greatest. Nobody really knows. However, when I'm done, my name will be set in the NBA bible. And that's what it's all about.
"I know what I did. I know I changed the rules. I know they flop because of me, they whine and they cry because of me. I could just put a little toe in the lane and they'll be jumping over there, 'Three seconds! Three seconds!' So that's telling me something. The greatest? I don't know. Different time, different era.
"However, though, there is a secret big man alliance."
He actually leaned over to whisper this revelation.
"Yeah, all the big men respect me. All the big men say, 'That cat can play.' It means the world to me because I represent them well. Robert Parish respects me. Artis Gilmore respects me. [Jon] Koncak respects me. Wilt Chamberlain respected me. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respects me. David Robinson respects me. Hakeem "The Dream" respects me.
"And I'm in the top three of that alliance. Of all those names, I may not be one. I may not be two. But I know I'm top three."
Hold up. Jon Koncak?
"Well, Koncak was just a name that came up. Actually, you know why I call him a great center? He paved the way for me. He was the first one to get that $15 million for five years."
All those declarations about this not being about the money? Never mind.