Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Can the Diesel Keep Winning All by Himself? Well Now That You Mention It
By Dan Le Batard
HAVE YOU SEEN THE YOUTUBE VIDEO from the NBA All-Star Game? Not the one of Pacman Jones making it rain. The one of Shaquille O'Neal continuing to reign. At a crowded practice, O'Neal begins a break dance duel with LeBron and Dwight Howard. To everyone's howls, Shaq one-ups the young guys, spinning on his back and worming on his belly even after the two flee in hands-over-mouth, did-you-see-what-that-behemoth-just-did hysterics. Old school trumps new school. The scene works as a metaphor for where Shaq is in his career. In the video he is fit, smiling and moving in an impossible way for a man his size-all the while keeping back the young princes who keep coming at a throne he isn't ready to vacate. Shaq stretches his arms and lets triumph wash over him. A winner. Again. Still. And forever. Didn't quite see this coming when a weeping Dwyane Wade left the court in a wheelchair, did you? Shaq getting 31 and 15 against Detroit? Shaq going for 24 and nine, plus eight assists, against the baby Bulls, who fancy themselves a challenger? Putting the defending champs on his back with 32 more against Minnesota, as the Heat begin their ascent? This lion in winter is still strong enough to do the big-game hunting. And he is smart enough, at 35, to let hungry, young cubs like Wade race through the jungle to chase down the food. But now that he's needed again, what you are hearing throughout the East is the reverberation of his roar. Doubted and disrespected, Shaq is taking back his kingdom. Since Wade went down, he has been dunking angrily and shouting at his 'mates, "Get me the f-ing ball!" Caron Butler says the easiest job in basketball is being Shaq's teammate. Jason Kapono, Jason Williams, Eddie Jones and Antoine Walker all have had 20-plus scoring games in Wade's absence. Just about every teammate Shaq has had in recent years puts up a career high in field goal percentage. Makes you wonder how the legacies of Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady might be different if they'd had Shaq. Rick Fox, Brian Shaw and Ron Harper weren't gritty champions; they were, like Gary Payton, spent vets who clung to Shaq. Meanwhile, Shaq, no matter his teammates or his uniform, has never had a single losing season. He remains immensely proud, which is why he declared his relationship with Phil Jackson "over" after Jackson questioned his work habits. But he is realistic, too. He concedes that he has lost something with age-but that just means he has gone from averaging 29 and 13 to 22 and 10 during his most recent healthy stretch. He remains, in his words, "the baddest big man in my age bracketus." It's why Wade defers to him at every turn, still, learning what Kobe didn't. During his big moment, Wade let Shaq take the Finals MVP trophy from David Stern and bring it over to him. He let Shaq take center stage with the president at the White House. He stands behind the centered Shaq in most team photos. And he says he won't say Shaq has lost a step (which he has) until he sees opponents stop doubleteaming him (which they haven't). Pat Riley understands too. Two scenes from a year ago: In the first, Riley is berating his team after a loss to Cleveland. Shaq gets up, moves Riley aside physically and tells him to take his foot off the gas, that the veterans will take it from there. The second is on the team bus immediately after the Game 6 crowning. Riley is seated in the first seat when Shaq boards. Shaq holds out a fist bump. Instead, Riley grabs Shaq's fist with both hands and kisses it. It isn't easy being a giant. Nobody roots for Goliath, as Wilt Chamberlain once famously said. You grow up awkwardly, stared at and different, and it can leave scars that echo into adulthood. It is why the biggest men in sports-Randy Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell-are viewed as enigmatic, moody, difficult. And it is why Andre the Giant reportedly once drank 119 beers in six hours. Good luck finding anyone this size as comfortable in his skin as Shaq is. You can see it in that YouTube video. Shaq likes it at the center of the stage. Likes it so much, he isn't getting off it just yet.