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Pro Basketball | ON THE NBA

He Only Hurts One He Loves

January 20, 2002|Mark Heisler

SAN ANTONIO — I was saving this piece for Valentine's Day to make up for all the shots I've been taking at Shaquille O'Neal for complaining, or swelling to the size of the Hindenburg, or just on general principles.

However, in the wake of his latest embarrassment, it's clear the big guy needs me now, so here goes:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Dear Superman/Diesel/Big Aristotle/Hindu Elephant or

whatever it is today,

I love you.

I'll tell you the day I fell for the big lug all over again, and it has nothing to do with titles, MVPs or being put upon by brutes.

It was in November after he was fined for wearing his shorts too low, and he joked that David Stern wanted him to look like John Stockton, and someone from the Utah Jazz sent him a pair of Stockton's size 32s ... and Shaq actually tried to put them on, in the dressing room, in front of a bunch of TV cameras.

Of course, he couldn't get them over his back side, which, let's face it, is to Stockton's what the Earth is to the moon. The video ran for a week on the NBA Web site.

In this business, lowlifes often win and good people often lose, so that what finally counts most is personality and character.

So O'Neal may or may not be the most dominating big man ever (I'd vote yes), and may not always get it right (I'd vote no), but what I'll always remember about him is, he's so much fun.

What's better than a star who can stop taking himself seriously long enough to joke at his own expense?

That's him, the Child Shaq, emerging daily to demonstrate the sheer delight of Being Shaquille.

Of course, as poor, anonymous people never get to find out, there's a price to pay for being rich and famous, not that it's so bad that the rich and famous often renounce their privileges.

Shaq, who is by far the biggest and baddest, gives as well as receives--remember how he pulverized Dikembe Mutombo in the Finals?--and has tormentors lined up, girding themselves for the next campaign. And once in a great while, when they're especially malicious and/or arrive in tandem, as Brad Miller and Charles Oakley did, he loses it.

O'Neal has since holed up, vowing never again to take such abuse, otherwise refraining from comment, or at least limiting himself to written messages to the media in his inimitable metaphor-a-day style.

Unfortunately, in his case, "abuse" is a condition of employment and runs both ways. He won't stop trying to post up in the lane, and opponents won't stop trying to tow him out.

If he swings on anyone else, he'll be suspended again and will have to sit still for more Morally Upright columns, while forsaking another $287,000 a game.

Even at $23 million a year, to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, 287K here, 287k there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.

The big question with O'Neal is how willing he is to suffer the real-world buffeting that comes with Being Shaquille.

Although he rates up there on effort among the great centers, he isn't a relentless, wake-up-every-day-and-prove-

something competitor like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Every title O'Neal wins seems to further diminish his interest in the long regular season.

Surprisingly enough, in flipping out, he actually drew a lot of sympathy from people in the best position to judge how mightily he has restrained himself.

Said Orlando Coach Doc Rivers:

"In Shaq's defense, you never want to throw a punch, but he was provoked. When you see those three and four fouls before that, there's a way of fouling a guy and then there's a way of fouling a guy to do some damage."

Said the Celtics' Paul Pierce: "I get hit a lot and I get frustrated when I don't get the call, but it's nothing compared to what Shaq goes through. I'm surprised he didn't strike back a long time ago."

The Big Whatever has shouldered his burden manfully and, hopefully, has five more years or so in him. Greatness is always in short supply, and fun is even more precious.

*

Faces and Figures

Quick study: Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban, after defying Stern repeatedly, paying $1 million in fines and alienating other owners by tampering with such stars as Karl Malone, senses his madcap style may not be working. After a report that Stern may start taking draft picks, rather than money, Cuban told a Dallas radio station: "Now you're impacting the ability of the team to compete.... You're not going to give me a chance. Then I'm out."

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