Shaq and Personality: The End is Near
LAS VEGAS - The fans didn't make a blunder when they picked Shaquille O'Neal as the Eastern Conference all-star starting center this season. Sure, at the time he was selected, O'Neal had only played four games -- very un-Shaq-like performances at that - and Orlando's Dwight Howard earned the spot based on productivity, but there is something O'Neal offers all-star weekend that, unfortunately, few other NBA players can: personality.
In the past two All-Star Games, O'Neal has added some flavor with a size-22 shoe phone and a remote control shoe car, decked out with spinning rims on the wheels and a horn that sounded like a diesel truck. He vowed that he will come up with something to top those displays of showmanship in Las Vegas. "I got something special I'm going to show you. I always have a special weird gadget," he said Friday. (He certainly had enough time off to come up with something).
For years, O'Neal has been considered the last of a dying breed because the dominant center seemingly disappeared with natural selection (big men wanted to play on the perimeter rather than post position anymore). But with the emergence of Howard and Houston's Yao Ming and to a lesser extent New York's Eddy Curry combined with the pending arrival of Greg Oden, the center position may not be dead after all.
Star players with charisma to spare? Now those players truly are dinosaurs, at least to O'Neal. The 7-foot, 300-something-pound behemoth has provided us with dominant performances and comic relief for most of the 15 years he's been in the league.
He has tried a career in rap - remember this a classic lyric: Supercalifragilistic-Shaq-Is-Alidocious? He tried a career in movies - was I the only person alive who actually liked Kazaam? And he kept us entertained with his endless string of nicknames - The Big Fill-in-the-Blank (Diesel, Aristotle, etc.) or The Most Dominant Ever. "For me, it was all about marketing myself, marketing the Shaquille brand," O'Neal said. "That's just how I am. I've always been a class clown, always been silly. I was just being myself."
O'Neal likely has just three more years left, since the Heat owes him another $60 million (which I can't imagine he'd walk away from). I asked him yesterday if there were any players out there ready to carry the personality/fun mantle when he's gone. "That's a good question. From when I was growing up, you always had Mike, Magic and Charles. You had a flash of Bird in there, or a flash of other guys. Now, not really," O'Neal said. "There's a lot of young, talented guys, but they're serious all the time."
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas certainly wouldn't be classified as serious. He describes himself as a "goofball" and seems to be one of the few stars who actually appears to be having fun playing basketball. Arenas told me that has modeled his personal marketing and business ventures after The Big Goofball, O'Neal ("I'm a little Shaq," he said). But when I asked O'Neal if Arenas was silly enough to take the crown, O'Neal didn't hesitate. "No," O'Neal said. "It either has to Kobe, Dwyane or LeBron. Nobody else."
Kobe, Dwyane or LeBron? Those guys can certainly be in any debate for the league's best player, but league's most vibrant personalities? Um, no. When someone reminded O'Neal that those players don't have it in them to take on that role, he didn't back down. "I think they can develop it," he said. "They have to embrace it. If they don't embrace it, it'll never happen."
Otherwise, to Shaq, he will walk away from the game and take the character with it. And, Arenas will have to deal with yet another snub.
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