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He smiled and whispered in her ear ...
It was April 26, 1996. Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs between the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic. I was then a short, skinny 15-year-old who barely knew how to shave. Earlier that day, I heard Mindy, the senior girl who I had crushed on, mention she would be attending the Magic game that night. Prom and graduation were weeks away. I needed to leave a lasting impression. Hence, I pulled out my ace in the hole, all seven feet of him. I asked her if she wanted to meet my buddy, Shaquille O'Neal. She said yes, albeit her family, including her brother, would be with her.
My sophomore year of high school was the sports version of "Almost Famous." Like Cameron Crowe's hero, William Miller, I became an aspiring journalist for national magazines before I even kissed a girl. My world wasn't rock 'n' roll, but the NBA. I would interview everyone from Michael Jordan to Grant Hill, but it was my bond with Shaq that defined those magically tinged, semi-charmed times. And now that he's retiring after 19 years in the league, it's hard not to wax wistfully on that short but significant time period when I could say Shaq and I were friends.
|That's Shaq lifting former high school reporter and now Page 2 contributing writer Amar Shah.|
My sophomore year, I joined my high school paper as a staff writer. Obviously, I would need to wait in line to rise up the editorial hierarchy, but I wanted to try to do something more ambitious. Why couldn't a high school journalist get a press credential to a professional sporting event? I called the Magic's media relations department every day for a month until the team granted me a press credential to a Magic-Miami Heat preseason game.
On Oct. 24, 1995, my parents drove me to the Orlando Arena. Armed with a tape recorder, notepad and a cheap disposable camera, I approached the media entrance to pick up my credential. The security guard stared at me bemused. I gave him my name and my publication. He checked the list. I was there.
On the court, I spotted Penny, Dennis Scott and others warming up. I watched for a few minutes, then I headed toward the Magic locker room.
Shaq was at his locker chatting with a few reporters. At the time he was only 23, lithe, light and powerful. When he spotted me there was a glint of mischief in his eyes. He told me he doesn't talk to the press before games. Though, he said if I wait in trainer's room, he would grant me a couple questions. I did so, but after a few seconds I thought he was messing around and headed back toward the locker room door. Just as I was about to enter, this looming shadow emerges over me and there he was laughing.
He discussed everything from the movie he shot that summer ("Kazaam"), his father, to his rhyming skills. While we chatted, he chomped on a club sandwich so large Adam Richman wouldn't even try to eat it. He even called O.J.'s daughter Arnelle Simpson, who he had been linked with, and had me leave a voicemail for her. The game was about to start, and I asked him if we could take a picture. He lifted me and someone snapped the photo. In the second quarter, the Heat's Matt Geiger chopped Shaq on his right hand, fracturing his thumb. He would miss 22 games that season. He left the game without speaking to anyone. When I had my photos from the game developed the next day, the entire roll was underexposed.
In December of that year, I discovered that Dennis Tracey, Shaq's manager at the time, was building a restaurant near my high school. I inquired about helping with Shaq's Christmas charity program called Shaq-a-Claus. He told me I could tag along. That night I helped find and stock toys. The following afternoon Shaq would distribute them to the kids. I had no idea the next day I would eat lunch at Shaq's Isleworth home, hang out with him at the charity event and have him drop me off at my house. Then he shot hoops with my brother and I in our yard. My mom apologetically offered him a Coke. He was signed with Pepsi at the time. He drank it regardless.
After I got back from winter break I started writing for Slam Magazine. For the rest of the 1995-96 season I attended a number of Magic games as a member of the working press. I also pitched my experiences with Shaq to Sports Illustrated for Kids. They were intrigued.
Around school, I was getting the label of Shaq's buddy, a mixed blessing. In ways, it made me popular for entirely materialistic reasons. But what it didn't do is help me win the heart of the girl in my drawing class. I remember Shaq giving me advice on the matter, but not even the Big Aristotle's wisdom could inject a 15-year-old with the courage to utter even a hello to the girl who sat in front of him.
Sports Illustrated for Kids called to tell me they wanted to run my story. They told me they wanted to do a photo shoot with Shaq and I.
On a March school afternoon, a white Mercedes 600SL convertible arrived on campus, bass thumping. Shaq had arrived. That day I wore his actual uniform for a photo shoot we shot in our school's media center.
When the May issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids hit newsstands it turned out that I was on the cover with Shaq. At first, the reaction was ecstatic, but then a sense of jealousy crept in from others at school. I had created enemies, partially from my own boasting. You don't recognize until later that perhaps, even if it's not purposely, that you are exploiting a friendship and yourself.
I realize now that the day I took Mindy and her brother to meet Shaq was the end of something. Shaq was generous as always. He took pictures and chatted with Mindy and her little brother. Yet, no matter what he could have said to her, I still didn't muster the courage to ask her to the prom.
The Magic would lose to the Chicago Bulls in the conference finals that year. Later that summer Shaq signed a $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
I wouldn't see Shaq for another two years, until the Lakers practiced in our school gym. When I met him, we reminisced about old times. He was still the same giant practical joker.
Over the next decade and even to this day, I continue down the sports media path. There's no doubt Shaq's impact and friendship on my early journalism career played an integral part in that decision.
Now that he's retired and back in Orlando, perhaps I'll have the chance to thank him. And maybe, I'll even ask what he said to Mindy that night.
Amar Shah is a writer and television producer working in Los Angeles. He can be reached at tamalejar.com or on Twitter at @amarshahism.
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