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At a Chinese gate, a Shaq

BEIJING 2008

August 19, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Beijing

For wisdom and solace during these bustling Olympics, some folks visit the temple of Confucius.

Others seek refuge in the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Still others find respite at the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Me, I went to see Shaq.

He's tucked away outside a remote gate of a city park, no markers on a tourist map, no signs on the street.

He's surrounded not by incense, but public toilets.

He's staring not into the future, but at a parking lot.

Those who visit offer him gifts not of gold and myrrh, but projectile spit and empty water bottles.

But former Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal doesn't seem to mind.

Here, nobody can accuse him of not hustling, because he literally is nailed to the ground.

Here, nobody can exhort him to work on his wooden hands because, well, the dude actually has wooden hands.

And here, finally, nobody can ever dare say that Kobe Bryant is bigger.

Here, the self-proclaimed Superman really is a super man.

All 50 feet of him.

Welcome to the Forbidden Center, the Great Brick Wall of China, the Temple of the Clang Dynasty.

Welcome to hell on earth for the Lakers, but heaven every day for Shaq.

Here he can stand forever in his uniform, holding a ball, surrounded by fans, without ever having to shoot a free throw.

Yeah, I still don't quite believe it either, but in the heart of Beijing is a giant statue of Shaquille O'Neal.

It sits outside the east gate of Chaoyang Park, Shaq looking over the basketball courts and soccer fields that sprawl across a massive playground.

Shaq always bragged that there would never be another Shaq, but, well, the statue is exactly that.

That's his dark bald head, his vacant stare, his Fu Manchu mustache. That's his name on the lower part of the front of his white jersey, and those are his baggy white pants that stretch below his knees.

That's also his number scrawled in red on the back of his jersey, and -- guess what -- it's not his Lakers 34.

Forever and ever, O'Neal will wear No. 32, the number he has worn in Orlando, Miami and Phoenix.

That statue is tall enough to see the freeway traffic over the trees, big enough to put a basketball hoop on his butt, and real enough to make you wonder.

Why? Why would somebody go to such extremes to shadow the repressed locals with a monument to a guy who, even with his four NBA championships, is best known for clanking foul shots and carrying a grudge?

Shouldn't it be reversed?

Wouldn't you think, that, instead, Shaq could use a billion people standing watch over him?

"I walk past him every day and I think, he is just so-so," said playground player Lei Shi, 26, as he walked to his game. "We're not sure why he's here."

The answer can be found in an adjoining sign above the gate's entrance: Li Ning Sport Park.

This part of the area -- filled with basketball courts and pingpong tables -- is sponsored by Li Ning, a Chinese sportswear giant, sort of an Asian Nike.

The company is named after its founder, Li Ning, the former Olympic gold-medal gymnast who lighted the torch during the Beijing opening ceremony after floating fearlessly around the stadium.

The acrobatics and subsequent lighting by a middle-aged man has been the most stunning sight of the Olympics.

Wait, the second-most stunning sight.

Li Ning commissioned the statue of Shaq two years ago after O'Neal signed a five-year endorsement deal.

"We chose O'Neal based on his influence and expertise in basketball," Li said at the time. "Our cooperation will bring everything possible to China's basketball fans."

Well, he has that last part right.

He has given those fans nightmares.

"In my dreams at night, Shaq is just that tall," said Chen Chen, 22.

He has given them shattered beliefs.

"Shaq is a good player, but, look here, he is little fat," Chen said.

He has also turned them into unwitting members of the feud.

You see, Chen was interviewed as he walked past the Shaq statue wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey.

"Wait," Chen said, worried that he was causing more disharmony. "I only bought the Kobe jersey because they didn't have the Shaq jersey."

Kobe Bryant is indeed huge in China, not only the most popular player on the men's Olympic team but probably the second-most-popular Olympian here next to Yao Ming.

But, yep, in this park, Shaq is bigger, even if the fans don't want to admit it.

"Kobe is younger, and that Shaq over there is fatter," said Tony Zhang, 24. "Kobe is today. Shaq is too old."

Young athletes pass him on their way to and from their basketball games. Almost every time, they look up at him. And almost every time, they shrug.

"One good thing about this," Minghas Li said. "Shaq can't sing in real life, and here he will not be able to sing."

No, indeed, here in a city filled with sacred homage, the great god Shaq will spend the rest of eternity standing, staring, motionless, stiff arms, heavy legs, no explanations.

Some would call it mystical.

I would call it the 2004 NBA Finals.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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