“Shaquille O’Neal’s arrogance is an insult to people who think.”
That amazingly honest public statement was made by Bill Walton Sunday on ESPN’s Sportscenter. Sportscenter show host Chris McKendry – understandably – laughed uncomfortably and tried to verbally wiggle out of and around that damning comment.
I’ve had conversations with people recently about O’Neal and the stunning similarity in his flagging performance in Miami with a similar slippage in conditioning and play in Los Angeles. There were the “injuries” that looked more like laziness. The fully two steps too slow moves to the basket that look more like weight gained from one too many Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinners (one of Shaq’s admitted favorite “foods”).
There were rumors of shouting matches with head coach Phil Jackson and with Kobe Bryant. There was an indictment of O’Neal by Lakers owner Jerry Buss followed by a trade to Miami.
There was the sudden commitment to restoring his health and getting in game shape in order to bring Miami an NBA crown. The Heat posted a 59-23 record in the 2004-05 season but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons. Miami finishes the following regular season seven games off its 04-05 pace but shocks the world by winning the NBA Championship over a Dallas team that had the Heat on the brink of extinction. O’Neal made good on his promise to win in the land of the Cuban tan and in the process helped to elevate his nouveau Kobe Bryant sidekick, Dwyane Wade, to GQ cover, People’s Most Beautiful People, dating pop stars while married, status.
But last season the latter-day Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers began to rear its’ ugly head – again. Suddenly O’Neal talked the, “I play for the playoffs” talk, which meant coming to training camp woefully out of shape and never playing himself into shape.
During the season his off court dalliances caught up with his relationship to his wife, Shaunie, and on the court he looked disinterested and distracted. The Heat did not repeat; not even close. They limped into the playoffs with a 42-40 record and added seven years of sideline pacing wear on Pat Riley’s freshly replaced hip.
This season O’Neal’s conditioning deteriorated to the point where his career appeared to be over. He battled privately with Riley and played with a purposeful indifference. He sat down with a “hip injury” and pouted from the sidelines.
Meanwhile in Phoenix, new GM Steve Kerr assessed the Phoenix Suns team health and gave a scathing diagnosis to head coach Mike D’Antoni. Kerr found the players lacking in will, discipline and team defense. His prescription was for D’Antoni to crack the whip on the defensive end of the floor and make the Suns as potent a bit more conventional on the offensive end. This, Kerr felt, was and is the key to winning championships. And who would be more of an authority at knowing the alchemists formula for winning than Kerr? The man played under Phil Jackson and with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, and under Gregg Popovich and with Tim Duncan in San Antonio.
…perpetual whiner Shawn Marion and underachieving point guard Marcus Banks for “The Big Monstrosity”, O’Neal.
Really, Kerr did. Straight up.
Now, Pat Riley, who openly lobbied for Shaq to be included in this year’s All-Star game as a ‘thank you’ from the NBA for years of service and was saddened by the trading of O’Neal, is rejuvenated. He feels Wade and Marion can rival Pippen and Jordan’s exploits in today’s NBA.
In Phoenix, Shaq is saying all the right things. But they are things we’ve heard before – and before he made good on his words. Now he’s, “really upset,” with his naysayers and when he’s “really upset, he says he does things like, “win championships.”
If Shaquille O’Neal is to be believed, we will see a man possessed when he returns to playing basketball on a regular basis once he is “healthy” and accustomed to his new digs. And down the road we might even witness Shaq playing protector of “Little Stevie Fingertips” Nash, slamming to the hardwood his old “Robin,” Kobe Bryant as he traverses down the lane toward what would have been a sure basket against the “old” Phoenix Suns.
If O’Neal is the two steps too slow, 36-year-old (next month) center, no longer able to be in shape with a body that no longer heals because of too many days away from conditioning and too many cortisone shots, the Suns will flounder. They will, more than likely, be one and done in the playoffs.
And what more fitting a scene than Bryant and Pau Gasol walking away from the Lakers’ fourth win of their series against Phoenix, arms raised in triumph – meet the new boss.
Whatever the outcome, for O’Neal this is the crucible and the final crossroads in his long career. But this time there is no happy ending for the man with the out-sized image, both affable and sardonic, sometimes simultaneously.
If the Suns ride through downtown Phoenix holding the Larry O’Brien trophy with Shaq leading the cheers, the win will be the result of a grand ploy – a ruse played by O’Neal against the man who resuscitated his career, Riley. If the Suns flame out O’Neal will have lied to the press, the public, and most importantly Steve Kerr. The Suns GM will have lost some credibility with Phoenix ownership, lost credibility with his players, and lost the psychic battle with D’Antoni. Kerr’s every future move will be contextualized in relation to his failed O’Neal experiment and the man whose name was once recited as a mantra after his every made three-pointer in nearby Tucson, may not be for long in Phoenix; the good son banished to the NBA netherworld of color commentary and the perpetual butt of Charles Barkley jokes and TNT mashup parodies – Steve Kerr, perennially Gone Fishin’.
No matter the outcome, O’Neal will be seen as traitorous in one city and eyed warily in the other. And no one could have ever imagined that Shaquille O’Neal, after stops in four NBA cities, might well end his career as a giant of a man alone.
A giant of a man without a home.