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Bill Plaschke

Don't Ignore Center of Issue

January 15, 2002|Bill Plaschke

After two days of study and observation, I've come up with a new and revolutionary theory to explain Saturday's right hook by our favorite heavyweight.

Shaquille O'Neal chased down the Chicago Bulls' Brad Miller and threw a punch at the back of his head, grazing his left ear, right? For that, he was suspended three games and fined $15,000, correct?

This is going to sound crazy, so bear with me.

I'm not going to blame the referees.

I'm not going to blame the NBA.

I'm not going to blame Brad Miller.

I'm not going to blame big-man stereotypes, anti-Laker bias, or even fat-mouthed knuckleheads named Oakley.

This is going to come across as completely knee-jerked and nuts, but here goes:

I'm blaming Shaq.

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This town's love for the Lakers is honorable and inspirational and, on downtown street corners in June, overwhelming.

But in this case, it's also a bit silly.

A guy throws a sucker punch that may have killed someone if it connected. With the ensuing suspension, the guy may cost his team victories and perhaps eventual playoff home-court advantage.

Fans who pay to see that guy, they won't. Kids who have modeled their behavior after that guy, can't.

Yet by criticizing the guy who threw the punch, I'm going to be the sucker.

So be it.

O'Neal, as it has been written here at least once for every dunk, has been maybe the best free-agent signing in this town's sports history.

He plays hard. He wins championships. He avoids trouble. He is as kind as he is large, as good-tempered as he is talented.

But Saturday night in Chicago, he blew it.

If only more people would say he blew it.

Instead, we have heard print and broadcast folks talk about how he was justified in retaliating for years of flagrant fouls.

We have heard teammates talk about how they are surprised he hasn't punched anyone sooner.

The theme has been as clear as O'Neal's attack was dangerous.

Hey, it's about time he punched someone.

Said Kobe Bryant: "You have to defend yourself. Sometimes saying things just doesn't cut it. You have to stand up for your self-respect."

Added Samaki Walker: "We're not saying fighting is good, but sometimes a man's got to do what he's got to do."

Last time I heard quotes like that, they came from athletes wearing skates.

Thank goodness Laker officials emphasized Monday that the club doesn't share those same views.

"This is not how you gain respect as a player, it is not about fighting," said Coach Phil Jackson after the morning shoot-around.

Later that night, before the Lakers' 120-81 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, General Manager Mitch Kupchak echoed those sentiments.

"We don't condone this type of behavior," he said. "In no way do we approve of what happened. The team is hurt, the NBA is hurt, people with season seats are hurt."

This teamwork among players is good. But nothing will help the Lakers like the truth.

And the truth is, the punch solved nothing, other than reducing O'Neal's tax base by $714,285.72.

You think it will change the way the NBA officiates those who try to defend O'Neal with shoves and hacks?

If it does, then the referees also will have to begin calling charging fouls when O'Neal elbows defenders as he lumbers across the middle.

If that happened, the games would take four hours, or nearly as long as anything involving the Angels, and you know how long that would last.

You think, too, that the punch will make one of these low-rent centers think twice before taking a punk shot at O'Neal?

Hmmm, let's see, Miller and Oakley got O'Neal ejected from a game that the Bulls won, then cost the Lakers the use of their best player for a week. And they're supposed to think twice about that?

The truth is that the rougher it gets, the cooler O'Neal must remain. He is not only this team's leader, he is also its pulse. When he gets dizzy, so do they. When he loses control, so will they.

Being Goliath is one thing. Dealing with all those stones is another. But O'Neal needs to figure out a way.

"If a guy makes 85% of his free throws, this problem will go way, I'm sure that's what the other general managers of the league will tell me," Kupchak said. "But then I would say to them, make a play on the ball, stop making a play on the head."

Improved free-throw shooting is indeed one solution. But seeing as it may be too late in the season for that, maybe the Lakers should be content with improving his feet.

What probably bothered O'Neal more than the fouls Saturday was that he had to absorb them on those aching dogs.

O'Neal has long hidden his pain better than anyone. But there's no more hiding the beating inflicted by two feet that have to support a frame that is, to be generous, several pounds overweight.

Here's guessing O'Neal wouldn't have attacked Miller if his feet had not been attacking him first.

Maybe the suspension will help those feet. Maybe even more rest is needed.

And maybe when O'Neal returns, he will admit what few seem capable of admitting, that he made a mistake.

If the morality of the issue doesn't sway him, maybe sitting home Monday while Kobe Bryant scored a league-high 56 points in three quarters against the Grizzlies will.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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