That the Wizards had won their first two games was a bonus, but fact is folks came to see Shaquille O'Neal. Until a team does what the Pistons did last year, stars are the attraction in pro basketball and there's no bigger star than Shaq as this NBA season begins. Probably, Shaq could have skipped the first few games of the season and protected a strained hamstring, but it never crossed his mind not to play, partly out of a feeling of obligation, partly because he has rediscovered the joy of basketball without melodrama.
The final weeks and months of last season had worn him down, whether or not he knew it at the time. But it's been all kisses and candy since the Lakers traded him, at his request, to Miami. Shaq, a military kid, loves being in the employ of Pat Riley, a boss who everybody knows is the boss. He loves playing with Dwyane Wade, a kid for whom being Robin to Shaq's Batman is absolutely no problem. Shaq loves the ocean and the hot weather every day. He loves being at the center of basketball, particularly on a night that produces a 118-106 victory in Washington.
"It's very rejuvenating," Shaq said at the team hotel not long after arriving in town Friday night, "because all I wanted to do was play basketball, make history. I was talking to Coach [John] Thompson the other day and he said, 'You've done so much, why do you still play?' I told him, 'As a big man, I start to get selfish.' "
Well, if gearing up to win another championship or two and playing with a sense of history is selfish, then selfish is good in this case. "Bill Russell is the baddest big man ever," Shaq said. "I don't mind being after him. But right now, in the minds of people, I'm like fourth or fifth. That's not good enough for me. There's Bill, there's Wilt, there's Kareem, there's Hakeem and there's me. That's not good enough for me. So I'm going to keep playing, keep dominating, keep doing what I do, and hopefully, when all is said and done, they'll say, 'Bill, he's the baddest, he's got 11 rings. But Shaq. Wooooo. He was something.' That's why I want to play. I want to get five or six rings. I want to be the baddest big dude ever."
"No," Shaq said. "Most dominant player of this millennium? Yes. Because there are a lot of guys with greater skills than I have. Garnett and Duncan. I'm not going to say those guys can't play, because they can play. Their games are different. I'm the master of my game, the banging and the fighting. Garnett and Duncan are the masters of the fundamentally sound, the drop step, the step-back jumper. That's their stuff. My game is dominating, throwing 'bows, making David Stern talk to the referees, 'Change the rules.' "
He's the most likable Goliath ever, in the NBA anyway. People came to MCI last night to see him throw some 'bows, to see him swat some little guard into the front row. The fans would like to have seen more. Eddie Jordan would like to have seen even less. The Wizards, remember, have played the first three games of the season without any bigs. Kwame Brown, 6 feet 11, and Etan Thomas, 6-10, are injured. Brendan Haywood, 7 feet, has been suspended for that ridiculous fight he was involved in during a preseason game against Chicago. So the Wizards came into the game with Miami wanting to push the ball on offense and pressure it on defense, hoping for some kind of Shaq-intervention. "Your team shows you how to play," Jordan said. "When your power forward is Antawn Jamison and your center is [6-8] Michael Ruffin, how much of a physical presence can you have?"
And even though the strength of this Wizards team, as evidenced in the victories over Memphis and Charlotte, is in its perimeter players, it doesn't have anybody as good as Wade, the second-year player out of Marquette. Even before Shaq showed up in Miami, it was evident Wade was special. Because of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, nobody even noticed the "other" rookie until the playoffs. Hello! Wade was the best player on a team that won a first-round playoff series. Anthony lost in the first round. James didn't even make it that far. And in this first week of his second season, Wade has played better than either of his more-hyped classmates. He dropped 37 on the Wizards last night, a hard 37 points that came on drives and loose-ball layups and isolation plays that just grind a defense to dust. It's the way Wade plays that makes him, to me anyway, the bottom-line equal of LeBron and Carmelo. There's something about fearlessness that makes a player more valuable in the fourth quarter, in May and June. And Wade plays with just that kind of abandon.
Shaq had a nice stretch of seven straight points to hold off one of several Wizards runs, but he didn't have to really exert himself in the end because Wade (11-for-16 shooting) and Eddie Jones (9 for 12) provided more than enough scoring. And isn't that what smart, opportunistic guards learn when they're playing with Shaq? That outside shots are less contested than they were before Shaq arrived. That they're never double-teamed anymore. That there are more open paths to the basket than there used to be, which is how Miami shot 55.8 percent against a Wizards team whose vow to open the season is they'll play better defense.
"Flash carried us tonight," Shaq said, leaving the visitors dressing room, using his new nickname for Wade.
How much easier is it to play with Shaq than before? "A lot," Wade said. "It means everything. I know the man guarding him is never going to leave him. I can go down there with more confidence than I ever did before."
So the Big Man's 13 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes don't begin to tell of his impact. It's an inside impact the Wizards would love to have one-third of, even though Gilbert Arenas scored 27, Larry Hughes scored 26 and Jamison scored 24. It's a rather enjoyable team to watch that the Wizards have put together, and outside of the two Michael Jordan seasons, how often is it possible to say that about the Bullets/Wizards over the last 20 years? But they're going to need Brown, Haywood and Thomas to make a rather hefty collective contribution.
As for right now, the season-opening wins at Memphis and Charlotte cannot be discounted on any level since the Wizards won only eight road games all of last season. Losing to Shaq and Miami is no disgrace; lots of teams will find themselves in a similar predicament between now and springtime. And if that rejuvenates Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA ought to be as happy as he is.