Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Our favorite random acts of Shaqness
Shaq's retirement will leave a big void in the NBA, but his best moments on and off the court will live on.
Our staff looks back on its fondest memories of the "Big Aristotle," er, the "Big Shamrock" ... the "Big Shaqtus" ... whatever, after 19 very "quotatious" years:
Talkin' a good gameMarc Stein, ESPN.com
The best line I heard all day on this sad, sad, sad occasion for NBA media types who've been living off Shaq's quotes for nearly two decades came from another one of my favorite players I've ever covered: Dennis Scott.
D-Scott, of course, was one of Shaq's original running mates in Orlando and a pretty loquacious dude himself. So it came as zero surprise that "3D" didn't disappoint when I caught him on his way to an NBA Finals assignment for NBA TV, looking for his best Shaq story before he ducked onto an elevator.
"One?" Scott shouted at me.
He was right, too. One? Good luck.
For all the Hall of Fame numbers Shaq racked up over the years, there were so many more stories, jokes, quotes, nicknames, feuds, faces and dances that did the work for us. Narrowing it down is nearly impossible.
So I'll try to focus on two.
1. Speaking as selfishly as possible, nothing tops the time Maxim magazine asked me to do a one-on-one with "The Diesel." He couldn't have said yes faster ... because, as he later told me, his assumption was that I'd have a Maxim model or two in tow.
Can't deny, in retrospect, that interviewing Shaq with no bleep button required definitely enhances the experience. And I'll never forget how he insisted that we sit in a hotel bar where anybody and everybody could see (and interrupt) us, because no star in NBA history was more comfortable around Joe Public.
No one hated just hiding out in his hotel room more than Shaq.
2. I actually heard in March from an impeccable Shaq source that the end was near. That he was going to retire at season's end no matter how his ill-fated comeback with the Celtics played out.
"This is it," my source said.
So I flew to Houston on a Friday night in late March, with Shaq's Celts on the road, to try to get the truth straight from the only iron-clad source on the subject.
The way Shaq hobbled to the Celtics' bus that night, looking so labored as I followed him down the Toyota Center loading dock, told its own story. But I didn't get anything close to a confirmation that retirement was near for the "Big 401(k)." Shaq's parting gift to this media pest was one last proclamation of stubborn defiance and bravado that will never be erased from my tape recorder.
I asked: "How much do you look forward to the opportunity to go up against guys like Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum in the playoffs?"
Shaq answered: "Excuse me? Don't ask me a question like that."
Me again: "But that's what people want to know. Those guys are playing so well and everyone wants to see if you can match up with them one-on-one."
Shaq's reply: "First of all, they won't dare play me one-on-one, even at the tender age of 39. And you know what? Playin' those teams, it ain't gonna be about the [center] matchup, so I don't really worry about that."
That's the Shaq I want to remember. No one talked a better game.
Even when he could barely walk.
Going one-on-one with the 'Big Diesel'J.A. Adande, ESPN.com
Of all the NBA players I've covered in nearly two decades in the business, Shaquille O'Neal was the only one I actually covered. As in tried to guard, on the court.
File that under the category of "things that seemed like a good idea at the time." I was assigned a freelance story for the Sporting News on life in the low post, and after hearing so many people describe the challenge of defending Shaq in the paint ("It's like trying to hold a train," Hakeem Olajuwon said), I decided to give it a try myself.
Following a Lakers practice at the Forum, we went at it for a few plays, me guarding Shaq, then Shaq guarding me, with Lakers public relations director John Black throwing the entry passes. After only a few minutes of Shaq knocking me around with his elbow, displacing me with his butt and jamming my back with his forearm, I had my story -- but I also had a pounding headache, a sore back and a shirt drenched with sweat.
It made me feel sorry for NBA players who had to guard him for 35 minutes a night, but I also got an appreciation for what made O'Neal one of the most unstoppable forces in the history of the NBA. He was so strong that at one point I grabbed his bicep on his way up -- more of a survival instinct than an attempt to stopping him from scoring -- and he merely brought me along for the ride as he went to the hoop. He also was fast enough that when I dribbled past him and tried to shoot a reverse layup, he caught up with me and blocked the shot.
Shaq gave me more good memories than painful ones. I remember the time he tumbled over the media table trying to save a loose ball in Seattle, and while the entire crowd held its breath and wondered whether he was injured, I looked under the table and saw him smiling like a little kid. There was the time he was on a massage table in the cramped quarters of the visitors locker room in Portland, and made chopping motions and kung fu movie sound effects when Gary Payton attempted to walk past him, prompting "The Glove" to ask, "What is wrong with you?"
Just last week, while talking before a playoff game in Dallas, Jeff Van Gundy chastised me as a media representative for the way we'd let Shaq off the hook for missing practices because he gave us creative excuses like: "I was on the highway, the chicken truck flipped over -- egg yolk and feathers all over the highway. Something I couldn't get around."
Van Gundy was right. We let Shaq off easy. But that's because he made it easy for us, giving us so much material. Stories can only be as good as the characters, and Shaq is one of the greatest personalities the modern sports world has seen, that rare big man who relished his size off the court, rather than felt imprisoned by it.
A couple of years after Shaq left L.A., I saw a news story about a freeway being closed in Houston because a truck crashed and spilled 10 tons of frozen chicken onto the road. I emailed Shaq a link to the story and told him I'd never doubt one of his tales again.
"See?" he wrote back. "Told you."
|J.A. Adande is still aching from the patented low-post moves Shaq dropped on him as part of a story.|
Living the high lifeHenry Abbott, TrueHoop
In 2002, Rebecca Mead profiled Shaquille O'Neal in The New Yorker. The story leaves O'Neal in a custom harness dangling somewhere over Orlando on something called the Skycoaster. (Looks like this.) He has the thing for two hours straight, but if people approach wanting an autograph or whatever, instead of giving them that, he invites them to join him on the Skycoaster, which he says he loves and does all the time, 'cause it feels just like flying.
The knock on this man will always be that he did not do enough work -- to keep in shape, to win even more titles, to master the free throw. He fell far short of achieving his maximum potential. But his life was such that even without that extra work, he starkly outplayed just about all of his opponents and detractors, and was truly an unstoppable force. He didn't work hard enough to please the critics, but he worked more than hard enough to be legendary. And he led the league in playful grins, which ain't nothin'.
Shaq snapshotsRic Bucher, ESPN The Magazine
My best memory of Shaq isn't a singular moment; it's a montage. That, to me, is the only way to do the man justice because he wasn't just one thing or one spectacular moment.
I recall talking to him, one-on-one, when he was in his second year in Orlando. He was being labeled simply a big guy who dunked, and how genuinely touched he was to talk with someone who, at that time, saw him as more than that. He could quote Aristotle, but when he went to Greece with Team USA and was asked about the Parthenon, he thought it was a night club.
I was walking down a street in Orlando once when the hairs on my arms stood up and tangoed, brought alive by the reverberating bass coming from a monstrous SUV rolling slowly down the boulevard. The Superman logo on the grill and the big bald head looming above the steering wheel behind the severely tinted windows gave away who it was.
I remember seeing him on a Harley, riding down the street in L.A., a black helmet looking like a tea cup strapped to the top of his massive dome.
I've heard stories about him buying rookie Mark Madsen a set of custom-made suits to upgrade his wardrobe and pranking rookies in rather degrading fashion.
I remember the first time he scored with his left hand and looked at it in awe as he ran back down court, something I've seen mimicked a thousand times since. Or the time he spoke at a news conference and purposely spoke with a mouth full of muffin stuck to his teeth.
I remember him talking confidently about what a genius businessman he was for coming up with the now-defunct Dunk.net, a company that would allow consumers to custom-design their gym shoes.
I also remember how, in his heyday, the Lakers ran a play in which he would curl across the lane, from the left block to the right, and after a quick ball reversal, the Lakers -- usually Robert Horry, as I recall -- would dump it into him. Shaq, on the move and that deep in the paint, was virtually unstoppable. He'd spin back left or just keep rolling right. The worst shot he'd get was a 6-footer off the glass, and more often, he simply crushed a dunk.
I also remember hearing him say to his Lakers teammates, down by a sizeable margin in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to Detroit, "This isn't over," and the disbelief on their faces because they knew it was. He called Phil Jackson both a Benedict Arnold and his white father.
Give me another 15 minutes, and I'll think of another 15 snapshots of life with Shaq in the NBA. You couldn't believe half of what he said, but it was always an adventure discovering where he'd take the conversation next.
|Zooming down an L.A. street on a motorcycle? Nothing out of the ordinary for the "Big Diesel."|
Target practiceBrian Windhorst, ESPN.com
No one was ever safe from a prank with Shaq in the room, and you surely never wanted to turn your back. During his season in Cleveland, every teammate, coach, support staff member and even beat writer was a target at one time or another.
George Sibel, the Cavs' physical therapist, got the worst of it, and it became a season-long comedy routine for the two. Sibel is about a foot and a half shorter than Shaq and perhaps 200 pounds lighter. The two became especially close during Shaq's rehab from a thumb injury that kept him out for two months late in the season. Sibel trained with Shaq, often running arena stairs with him and doing other work, as he recovered from surgery.
Shaq developed a penchant for tackling Sibel at any moment, especially when he wasn't looking. In practices, in the locker room, in hotel lobbies, during breakfast meetings, Sibel was always at risk for being grabbed from behind and smothered on the ground or, worse, hung upside down by his feet. As the massively outsized Sibel would struggle to get away from the huge man, players would fall to the ground in laughter.
Shaq knew when to be serious, but at all nearly all other times, his top priority was to make people laugh. As former teammate LeBron James wrote on his Twitter feed after Shaq's retirement announcement: "Great person to be around ... Comedy all the time!"
'The Big Sewer'Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com
Back in 1996, when I was a very green sportswriter, Shaq was traveling with Team USA on a domestic tour prior to the Atlanta Olympics just a few days before he would bolt the Orlando Magic to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
We were in Phoenix, getting ready for a game against Australia, when I was in a small pack of reporters questioning O'Neal. Somebody asked about his free throw prowess, or lack thereof, and he said to the reporter: "You know who taught me how to shoot free throws? Chris Sheridan." It was my first signal that Shaq was pretty adept at playing the media, and he never ceased doing it.
In Miami two years ago, after he had been criticized the previous night by Stan Van Gundy, I walked into the visitors locker room and immediately went over to O'Neal, who whispered, "I've got somthing for you tonight," before disappearing into the back room. He waited for the Miami-based reporters to arrive, then went on a riff about how Van Gundy was "the master of panic" and would be exposed in the playoffs.
He made your job easy some nights, and it was always a treat to have Shaq give himself a new nickname from time to time, and they always began with "The Big ... ." His best was when he called himself "The Big Sewer," explaining that he had "a lot of s---."
The baddest 'slash' you've ever seenMichael Wallace, ESPN.com
The first time I met Shaq was the season after his rookie year with the Magic, when he strolled into, let's just say, a certain Orlando performing arts establishment to bankroll a dance-off contest. He had just released his first rap album and had agreed to sit down with me for a story about his skills on the court as well as in the studio.
Back then, Shaq was far more proud of his rap game than his post-up game. "Before I'm done, I'm going to be the baddest 'slash' you've ever seen," Shaq told me at the time, meaning versatile celebrity (actor-slash-athlete-slash-artist). Some 14 years later, I had a chance to cover him on a full-time basis during his stint with the Miami Heat. I've seen Shaq dunk, rebound, block shots and brick free throws a million times over the years. But almost none of my best memories of his career were set on the basketball court.
He made his interaction with the media and team basketball staffers as memorable -- good and bad -- as any game he played. There was the time he joined in with the Miami Heat crowd and chanted, "We want Zo," while sitting right next to Alonzo Mourning before Zo was put into the game at the end of a blowout win. There were the numerous times he drove Pat Riley crazy with that "I can turn it on when it matters" attitude, one that left Shaq and Riley nearly coming to blows during one intense practice session. There was the time in Portland during his final season in Miami when he left his jock strap on the scorer's table and whispered to reporters, "I don't have any panties on," in his Eartha Kitt voice from "Boomerang."
There was even the time he showed up for media day at the start of Heat training camp announcing that he'd spent the entire offseason training with MMA fighters and tried to put me in a "Shaqmission" (submission) choke hold to prove how much he'd learned. Shaq had many sides to him. Good Shaq. Bad Shaq. Vengeful Shaq. Petty Shaq. Prideful Shaq. Dominant Shaq. Lazy Shaq. Hilarious Shaq. But above anything else, he was always Entertaining Shaq.
He knew his legacy and the impact he had on people on and off the court. No athlete/celebrity I've ever been around was more comfortable in his/her own skin than Shaquille O'Neal.
|One of Shaq's biggest goals was becoming one of the most versatile celebrities around.|
A powerhouseDr. Jack Ramsay, ESPN Radio
The best that I recall seeing Shaq play was in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against Portland, when the Lakers came from way back. Down the stretch, they needed a big field goal, and off the dribble, Kobe Bryant threw the ball up near the rim. Shaq went high above it and threw it down with one hand. It was the climax of the Lakers' effort in coming from behind to win that game and win the series.
Shaq might have been the most dominant physical player in the history of the NBA. He was not as skilled a shooter as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not as great a passer as Bill Walton. And not as great a defender as Bill Russell. But across the board, he was a powerhouse.