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A Little Slaq?

After three titles, O'Neal believes he has earned a 'benefit-of-doubt clause' to shield him from criticism, but he knows no immunity is forthcoming

February 21, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The three NBA championships, it turned out, brought Shaquille O'Neal golden trophies and diamond rings and a degree of professional satisfaction, but he's waiting on the rest.

He'll play basketball again tonight for the Lakers, ultimately for the chance for a fourth of everything. He'll play against the Portland Trail Blazers on a toe that needed surgery in September and a pain-killing injection four months later, on a knee that required acupuncture treatment -- his last resort in the past -- just Wednesday.

He sat out two games this week, wins for the Lakers, no less, and sensed not sympathy but suspicion, curious, he said, given his previous three seasons. Was it not O'Neal who won one and predicted two, who won two and guaranteed three? Who sat Thursday afternoon and gnawed on something called free-range chicken in a restaurant where the garnish out-sizes the food by two to one, because he wants to be light and fast and, you know, him again?

He did not demand to know. He did not summon his "Can you dig it?" voice. He wondered. They raise banners and before they wring the last bit of spotlight from it, he's too fat and undisciplined to win another, and then come spring he's not so overweight the NBA Finals MVP podium can't hold him and another trophy, so it seems.

Just curious, he said, but how many before he can be trusted? Four? Five? More than Magic and Kareem? More than Michael? How many more?

At an out-of-the-way table in Beverly Hills, seated across from business manager Mike Parris, near a garden in which he said he occasionally meditates, O'Neal said he has everything but what he wants -- a little room to be him.

"Just once, I should get a benefit-of-the-doubt clause," he said. "Just once. Now, if I play like this this year and I play like this next year, then you maybe could say that my game [has slipped]. But before I even give you guys the opportunity to think like that, I'll be long gone. I'll be in Florida chilling with the babies. I'm just sore right now. I'm beat up. That's what I am -- beat up."

He doesn't look like a man under enormous pressure. In 20 minutes, he has shown his versatility -- Maria Shriver comes to shake his hand and LL Cool J comes to hug him -- and his generous side: "To Patrick," he writes to Shriver's 9-year-old, "I'll see you in the NBA. Shaq." Employees wander over to him and he knows most of their names without sneaking a look at their gold name badges, but they don't pester him, and he doesn't mind anyway. He plucks a fistful of orchids from a large vase and hands the flowers to a woman standing nearby, and she fairly swoons at the gesture.

They ask about his foot and his knee and he answers, "I'll be fine, I'll be back," and they're sure he's right, because nothing could possibly hurt a man this large and unafraid. And, yet, there is a certain amount of surrender in him. When his children wanted snow during a two-day break in January, O'Neal flew the family to Sun Valley, where the kids spent, oh, 20 minutes in a drift before the cold and the waning novelty drove them indoors.

Some days, being him is enough. Others, well, he's not supposed to be fragile, he's not supposed to be embarrassed and he's not supposed to be difficult and surly and moody. But, he is.

"It's fun," he said. "Mostly fun. Most of the time. I just see with me, there's no room. There's no room for mistakes. No room for benefit of the doubt. I have to accept that. Sometimes I didn't accept that and I got upset. But I really can't get upset. I just sit back and look at people, read people. Now I know how everybody is, especially through tough times. This is a dog-eat-dog business we're in. Dog-eat-dog. Dog-eat-dog from the media. Dog-eat-dog from the organization. Just dog-eat-dog. Now I can just move on."

Not that there were a lot of choices. The Lakers are 28-25, tied for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with only 29 games to play. Kobe Bryant, whom O'Neal is touting for league MVP, has put together one of the most memorable three weeks of offensive basketball in history, and O'Neal has become almost an afterthought.

In fact, when O'Neal is mentioned lately, more often it is to condemn him for his waistline, or his choice of dates for surgery, or his unwillingness to share his post-game thoughts with the media. Though he has averaged 25.9 points and 10.6 rebounds -- about two points and two rebounds off his career numbers -- he has not brought his signature dominance to more than the occasional game, and he very often has taken the blame for the Lakers' disappointing first months.

Still, O'Neal is almost serene, and he smiles a lot and -- here's the thing -- he's not going to change, beginning with his heft. While he once hoped to return to 300 pounds from more than 340, as with most 30-year-olds (he'll be 31 March 6), reality comes hard and strong and medium-rare.

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