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J.A. Adande / NBA ALL-STAR GAME

Big Hurtle

O'Neal continues to get respect around the league even as it's harder to come by at home. But there's no reason he can't win back the fans.

February 15, 2004|J.A. Adande

This was Shaquille O'Neal as he could be and should be, the showman, the focal point, the ringleader. This was more like the man who won this city over, not the man who lost fans as he gained weight.

The fans packing the stands around the practice court at the NBA jam session chanted, "We want Shaq," enticing him to come sign autographs.

When Coach Flip Saunders gathered his Western Conference All-Stars to try some half-court shots, O'Neal kept grabbing basketballs from his teammates and throwing them at the hoop in a series of exaggerated, intentionally awkward attempts -- as if he were doing his interpretation of what would happen if Fred Sanford were picked for a halftime promotion. He kept shooting and missing, and everyone kept laughing.

At the conclusion of the workout, Saunders asked everyone to say "West" on the count of three, but O'Neal didn't let it end there. He brought everyone back to the huddle, made them rap something that sounded like the beginning of LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells," even hopping up in Yao Ming's face to, uh, help translate for the confused-looking giant from China.

O'Neal threw T-shirts and kicked basketballs into the stands as souvenirs.

It was like the not-so-old days.

Remember how O'Neal was master of ceremonies for the victory celebrations from 2000 to 2003? Can you dig it? Remember how Mark Madsen was dancing along to O'Neal's rhymes?

And does anyone remember that O'Neal was the most valuable player in all three of those NBA Finals series?

No athlete who gave the city so much has found himself so out of favor. The fans who come to Staples Center still cheer him, but those who call sports talk radio or sit at their computer keyboards to fire off letters to the sports editor have had it with him.

The letters in Saturday's Times alone called him "lazy," "overpriced," "sullen" and a "hypocrite."

Some even think the Lakers should pursue the once-unthinkable: Trade O'Neal.

Everything's in play right now, though, in a careening Laker season that could be followed by an even crazier off-season when Kobe Bryant explores free agency and Phil Jackson's contract expires.

This weekend, which should feel like a coronation, instead is turning into a vote. People are forming sides, and I've heard from so many Laker fans who want to keep Kobe, fire Phil and ship out Shaq. In other words, become the Orlando Magic. One great swingman, and no shot at a championship.

Stop it right now.

Rather than make the Lakers the Magic, they should make the main Magic a Laker.

Tracy McGrady can opt out of his contract next season. If the Lakers bank on O'Neal at the expense of Bryant, they can then gamble that McGrady would come to the Lakers for a discount in 2005 -- when the Lakers have potential salary-cap space.

McGrady and O'Neal are friends, and they have floated the idea of joining forces.

"I always talk about that with him," McGrady said. "But that's a hypothetical thing. It probably won't even happen. I try not to think about it as much.

"It would be nice, though."

The point that so many Laker fans -- and apparently one Laker himself -- don't get is that so many players around the league dream of playing alongside O'Neal. There's concern within the organization that O'Neal's weight and poor conditioning will lead to even more injuries.

But if Bryant left, don't you think O'Neal would be even more motivated than ever?

In the meantime, the Lakers are also in the championship picture as long as he's on the roster.

No need to hear it from me. And, even though O'Neal has had a lot to say the last couple of days, no need for him to defend himself here. Just listen to a teammate, two All-Stars ... and his wife.

New Orleans Hornet guard Baron Davis was asked what four players he would want on his team if, say, he needed to defeat a team of super-robots on Gilligan's Island. O'Neal was first.

"Shaq is the bomb, dude," said Davis, who also named Kevin Garnett, McGrady and Ray Allen. "Come on, everybody knows Shaq is the bomb. Probably the best center to ever play, most dominating center to ever play."

He's the primary concern of every opponent the Lakers face.

"Your emphasis is always on Shaq," San Antonio Spur forward Tim Duncan said. "Shaq is the premier player in the league. He's the end-all, be-all. They can play well with two or three of the guys there, and one of them's got to be Shaq. You have to start with him and you have to fan out from there."

Laker guard Derek Fisher knows he wouldn't have his three championship rings without O'Neal. He's not even sure whether he'd still be on the Lakers.

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