Commentary

A few theories to chew on

Originally Published: August 20, 2010
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe BryantNBAE/Getty ImagesLet Kobe do the counting: He has one more ring than Shaq.

I hate hearing the phrase "There's no answer." I can't accept it. Everything within reason should have an answer. And if you can't come up with one? Come up with a theory. Without further ado, here's my newest column gimmick, "Theories I've Been Chewing On Lately."

Chewed-On Theory No. 1: "Why did Shaq sign with the Celtics?"

Notice how that didn't read "Why did the Celtics sign Shaq?"

I went through the seven stages of grief when the Celtics signed Shaq: shock and denial ("No!"); pain and guilt ("No!!!!!!!!!"); anger and bargaining ("NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"); depression, reflection and loneliness ("He's a washed-up coach-killer who couldn't stop a high screen if you allowed him to use a taser and a billy club"); the upward turn (remembering that the Celtics signed him for the minimum, that he's eminently tradable or waivable, and that he was taking Shelden Williams' spot); reconstruction and working through (that he may have been miscast on his two previous teams, and with a bigger/slower/older team like Boston that struggles in the half court, he might be an asset on the low post against certain opponents); and acceptance and hope (that even if only he plays hard versus the three teams against whom he has a grudge -- Miami, Los Angeles and Orlando -- he could end up being a major asset). I finished the whole cycle in less than 24 hours.

Within a week, I was convinced that Shaq would be like Bill Walton with the '86 Celtics: rejuvenated and reborn. That's what fans do. We talk ourselves into things. And truthfully, I do think it was a smart signing for Boston for one reason: the price ($1.3 million). Even at Shaq's advanced age, he can still score down low or get fouled against everyone in the NBA except for maybe four guys. (Name me a Miami player who can keep him away from the rim. You can't.) Of course, you could have said that about Kareem in 1989, or Hakeem in 2002, but those guys had the dignity to retire first.

And that's what bugged me about this. Why would Shaq come back for a measly $1.3 million?

The man has made nearly $300 million just in salaries, not counting endorsements, production deals, movie roles, his reality show that he stole from Steve Nash, his music albums and the money that LSU paid him. He certainly didn't need the money. It's possible he just wanted to finish his career on a high note. After all, he left Orlando on bad terms, then Los Angeles, then Miami, then Phoenix, and Cleveland's 2010 disintegration wasn't uplifting by any means. Shaq's reputation as a negative influence -- within the coaching community, he's despised -- gained steam these past two seasons, breathing new life into theories about why his alliance with Kobe may have self-destructed. (Everyone always blamed Kobe, and yet, in two decades, only Phil Jackson and Pat Riley ever handled Shaq successfully behind the scenes.) By the summer of 2010, no contender would consider him except Boston. And only because the Celtics needed a center. It was a business arrangement of sorts: We need X, you need Y. Let's join forces.

Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWait, you mean Shaq and Kobe aren't best buds?

But again … what's Y?

Of the 20 best players ever (not counting LeBron, Duncan or Kobe), only Moses and Shaq got passed around like a used TV in their waning years. Russell, Havlicek, Magic, Bird, West, Baylor and Pettit played for only one team. Jordan, Kareem, Oscar, Hakeem, Doc and Mailman played for two. Wilt and Barkley played for three. Including his two-year ABA stint and his preseason cameo with the '77 Blazers, Moses belonged to 10 franchises from 1974 through 1995, rounding things out with the '93 Bucks (4.5 ppg), '94 Sixers (5.3 ppg) and '95 Spurs (2.9 ppg). It never felt right watching a legendary center pull a Mokeski for one last paycheck, but Moses didn't earn $300 million like Shaq did. This summer should have been a wake-up call for Shaq -- team after team saying "Thanks but no thanks" -- but he kept hitting the snooze button.

If, at any point from 1999 to 2009, you had told me "At some point in his life, nobody will want Shaq, and his choices will either be retiring, playing in Europe or playing for Boston," I never, ever, EVER would have imagined him jeopardizing his relationship with Lakers fans by picking Boston. But that's what he did. He's the biggest chess piece that ever switched sides in the rivalry. Maybe it's not like Red Sox fans bristling after Clemens forced a trade to the '99 Yankees, or even Dylan finding out from Nat that Brandon was dating Kelly … but still, he's going to saunter into Los Angeles wearing a Celtics uniform? The Lakers won't be rushing to retire his number after that one, nor will their fans care. Depending on how well Boston does (and how personally Lakers fans take it), Shaq could morph into the next Clemens, aka The Superstar Who Doesn't Really Belong To Any Team.

(Well, for about three years. Then Lakers fans will feel bad, put their bitterness aside and cheer him during his belated retirement ceremony for six of the 24 minutes.)

You can't even use the argument "The man just wants to win." He's already won four rings. He's a three-time Finals MVP. He banked a title without Kobe in Miami. He doesn't need to chase rings. The man has nothing left to prove.

Or does he?

You might remember the press conference after Game 7 of the 2010 Finals -- or, as it's known in my house, "The Night That Led To Dad Not Speaking To Anyone For Five Days" -- when Kobe couldn't conceal his delight when someone asked what the title meant to him personally, saying "I got one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank."

Everyone laughed. Then Kobe added cryptically, "You guys know how I am. … I don't forget anything."

He's not kidding. A few minutes before, when everyone was celebrating in the Lakers locker room, Kobe let everyone know how much he enjoyed passing Shaq in the ring department. He did it loudly. Boisterously. Euphorically. With a few expletives. I've heard this story a few different ways, but in each version, Kobe sounded a little like Tupac lighting everyone up at the end of "Hit 'Em Up." But "everyone" was Shaq. You know, a little revenge for the "Tell Me How My Ass Taste" rap. And that's fine. I love this stuff. It warms my heart to know that, in an era in which the league's best players would rather join forces than beat one another, two of the best 12 players of all time still despise each other.

Quick tangent: Please don't tell me you thought Shaq and Kobe made up, or that you were snookered by their nauseating "We're friends again!" routine at the 2009 All-Star Game. Come on. Do you realize that their feud has its own Wikipedia page? You forget how much happened between these two. They butted heads constantly during the last two title seasons, and when Kobe sold Shaq out during his initial Colorado police interview in 2003, that was the final straw. It's been a one-upmanship game ever since. Occasionally, the hatred seeps out. Like "Tell Me How My Ass Taste." Like Kobe being unable to restrain his glee after getting his fifth ring.

Here's what Kobe forgot, or even better, here's what Kobe knew: Shaq played for Los Angeles for eight seasons. He worked with people who still work for the Lakers now. The odds of Kobe's "Hit 'Em Up" routine getting back to Shaq, in some form, was between 100 percent and 100 percent.

And I don't think Shaq liked it. At all. Remember, Shaq could have gone to Greece or Italy, pocketed crazy money ($8 million to $10 million easy, tax-free), gained as much weight as he wanted, traveled Europe, dunked on a bunch of inferior opponents, become America's most beloved basketball export and expanded his brand to another part of the world. I can't imagine his business manager or agent advising him any differently. Come on, you already won four rings. Eight months abroad. We'll bang this out. You could weigh 375 pounds. It won't matter. They're gonna love you whatever you do. You'll be the biggest basketball star in the history of Europe. Hell, maybe you'll like it there. You could play until you're 45. Let's try it. Nope.

O'Neal signed with Boston because "when I close my book at the end of the day, it's all about winning and nothing else." This was someone who told a teammate before the final game of his 2009 Suns season -- when they had just been eliminated from playoff contention -- that he "needed to start getting in shape for my reality show." Game 82 and you need to get in shape? Huh? Now you suddenly care about winning titles again? Now you're fine with swallowing your dignity to be a spare part, a minimum guy, an afterthought, someone with no security at all? Just to chase a ring? When you already have four?

My theory: I think Kobe's postgame routine got back to Shaq. I think it pissed him off. I think it got his competitive juices flowing for the first time in years. I think he realized Boston was his best chance to tie Kobe at five. I think he wants this more than anything. I think he shows up next month in surprisingly good shape, and I think we'll be saying in November, "Wow, that Shaq signing may have been a great move by Boston!" And I think this will happen for only one reason: because Shaq hates Kobe and Kobe hates Shaq. Just a theory.

Chewed-On Theory No. 2: Why is the Nolan Ryan/Robin Ventura photo so available?

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan & Robin Ventura
AP PhotoOne of the great moments in sports history.

It cracked me up at last year's National Sports Collector Convention, then it cracked me up again at this year's convention in Baltimore: That's right, it's the funniest signed photo in sports, the one of Nolan Ryan beating the crap out of Robin Ventura. It's funny to look at. It's funny to think of Ryan's gleeful face every time he signs it. And it's really funny to think of Ventura's shoulders sinking every time he sees it.

You probably haven't thought about that fight in a while. Ryan was 46 years old at the time. He threw at Ventura, who took exception and charged the mound, but as he was arriving, I think he remembered, "Crap, this guy's 46, I'm gonna look bad." But Ryan was ready to throw down. He tossed Ventura in the headlock, punched him in the top of the head three times, then landed one Tyson-like uppercut before everyone jumped in. It's the definitive "That guy got his butt kicked" baseball fight. Ryan being 46 pushed it to another level.

The autographed photo slays me. I thought about buying a framed one in Baltimore until I remembered that those things are always cheaper online. So I surfed the Web that night and … Good Lord! Amazon is selling it. Walmart is selling it. Steiner Sports has it. So does the MLB shop. And eBay. And dozens of other retailers. Do a Google shopping search for "Nolan Ryan Robin Ventura autographed photo" and a whopping 14 pages of results come up. To put that in perspective, "Nolan Ryan autographed baseball" yields 19 pages of results (only 35 percent more) and "Nolan Ryan autographed no-hitter photo" yields just eight pages.

You know what that tells me? That tells me Nolan Ryan can't sign this thing enough.

My theory: I think he goes out of his way to sign them. I think he keeps a box of them in his car just in case anyone asks. I wouldn't rule out him throwing a "Ryan Beats the Crap Out of Ventura" autographed photo giveaway day when he takes over the Rangers. And eventually, I think Robin Ventura is going to snap, fly to Texas, show up at a Rangers game with his fists balled and say "All right, old man, you want a piece of me???" It's going to be like a scene from a bad '80s sports movie -- the downtrodden loser getting his revenge in the end -- but it's going to happen in our lifetimes. Robin Ventura and Nolan Ryan will fight again. You wait.

Chewed-On Theory No. 3: "Why can't Jennifer Aniston find a man?"

On the surface, this has nothing to do with sports. Just bear with me. Aniston became an A-list star thanks to "Friends." When the show folded in 2004, unlike everyone else on the cast, she managed to remain an A-List star despite making the following movies.

"Along Came Polly" (2004): Atrocious.

"Derailed" (2005): Especially painful because Aniston tried to be sexy and mysterious in it.

"Rumor Has It" (2005): Even my wife hasn't seen this one.

"Friends With Money" (2006): Overrated indie film, but she's good in it.

"The Break-Up" (2006): Did well because Vince Vaughn was red-hot at the time. Watchable once. Unwatchable a second time. Gets points for using Chicago nicely.

[+] EnlargeJennifer Aniston
James Devaney/Wire ImageMaybe it's all part of Jennifer Aniston's master plan to remain single.

"Management" (2008): Was this even released?

"Marley & Me" (2008): Her biggest triumph. Although they could have made this movie with Betty White playing Owen Wilson's wife and it still would have made $100 million.

"He's Just Not That Into You" (2009): My wife's review: "This was an affront to all women."

"Love Happens" (2009): Bombed. By the way, one of the five worst titles ever.

"The Bounty Hunter" (2010): More carnage.

"The Switch" (2010): Released today, although it looks so impossibly bad that "Arrested Development" fans are thinking about rioting outside Jason Bateman's house.

That's seven years, 11 movies, eight clunkers, one above-average (for her) performance and only two solid box-office successes. Two for 11? Certainly nothing to put her on par with Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon. The other "Friends" stars faded into B- and C-list obscurity (or in Matt LeBlanc's case, F-list), so why didn't she?

The short answer: Because of the Angelina/Brad/Jennifer love triangle, which is like Brett Favre's comeback/retirement/comeback routine multiplied by 10, but has been cruising along for twice as long. The saga evolved in various forms: the betrayal itself; the aftermath, when Aniston licked her wounds as "Brangelina" took off; her futile search for a bounce-back boyfriend; the Brangelina clan expanding; everyone feeling worse and worse for Aniston, with her finally admitting that she was still bummed out; the Brangelina clan expanding again; Aniston's weird dalliance with the much younger John Mayer, which ended when he talked out of school about her; the Brangelina clan expanding again; Aniston approaching her 40th birthday and wanting a baby; the Brangelina clan producing twins; Aniston hitting 40 with no baby or husband; Aniston passing 40 with no baby or husband; and now we're here.

People can't get enough of this stuff. Us Weekly throws Aniston on its cover every few weeks -- and if they can work Angelina into the split-cover, even better -- just because Aniston resonates with women like no other celebrity. No matter how wealthy or famous or good-looking she is, the nuts and bolts of Aniston's "tragic" story could have happened to anyone: She lost her scummy husband to a seductive co-worker. Maybe it was the worst thing that ever happened to her personally, but professionally? Godsend. She became America's adorable little victim for seven years until Bullock finally pushed her aside. People don't read Us Weekly to see pictures of happily married couples. They read for drama. Tragedy. Betrayal. Acrimony. They read to see someone's life spinning out of control, or to compare two people wearing the same dress, or to see someone taking out the garbage who's "just like us."

Aniston's life resonates with that demographic better than anyone. Now she's 41, still hunting for a man, her ovaries rumbling like Earl Campbell, but we're all a little confused because … I mean, how could Jennifer Aniston, of all people, not find a man? How could someone that attractive need a friend to set her up on dates? What the hell is going on here? Is she secretly super-annoying? Is she terrible in bed? Does she have bad breath or bad hygiene? Are her standards simply too high? Does she still pine for Pitt and any potential mate can sense it?

You're not going to believe this, but I have a theory …

I think it's all a farce. I think she gravitates toward guys who could never be a potential husband (seriously, John Mayer?) and FWBs (friends with benefits) over actually finding herself the right match. And here's why: The longer this drags on, the longer she stays on the A list. Staying single, ending up with the wrong guys, pining for a baby but never having one … career move, career move, career move. Keeps her on magazine covers. Keeps people saying "I feel bad for Aniston, Brangelina really screwed her over; her life's never been the same." Keeps a built-in publicity buzz for every crappy movie she promotes. Really, it's genius.

Swinging this around to sports (and thank God, you were getting nervous): The Aniston dynamic resembles a great athlete who couldn't win a ring in his prime, but now time is running out and he only has a couple more chances. In sports, we love when this happens! I don't remember the intimate details of Joe Montana's last few seasons (or Isiah Thomas, Scottie Pippen, Keith Hernandez, whomever), but I remember everything about Karl Malone's last few seasons. And Barkley. And Elway. And Marino. And Elgin Baylor. And Ray Bourque. And Gary Payton. And now, LaDainian Tomlinson and Steve Nash. The last stage of their careers became compelling simply because they wanted a ring and we wanted them to win one.

Aniston transferred that same dynamic to the Hollywood world. Say she remarried in 2006 to one of those Rande Gerber-type rich guys who owns cool bars that are in hip hotels. And let's say they had a kid in 2008. And another one this year. By 2010, would anyone care about Jennifer Aniston? NO!!!!!!!! Only if she was making good movies. Which, obviously, she doesn't want to do. She's happy being a likable celebrity with decent comic timing who plays herself in every movie (with only her hairstyle and co-star changing). I think that's intentional, too. She could have taken more acting chances -- remember how good she was in "Office Space," or as the sexually frustrated wife in "She's The One" -- but seems much more interested in protecting her brand. You can't differentiate between Aniston when she's being interviewed, acting in a movie or staring at you on a magazine cover anymore. It's all the same. That's the way she wants it.

I say she's much smarter than we think. Unlike with sports, she knows it's better for her career if she never gets that ring. She will continue dating co-stars, bad-boy musicians and people with lousy hair for the foreseeable future. You watch. So feel sorry for Steve Nash, but don't feel sorry for Jennifer Aniston. She's laughing all the way to the bank.

Chewed-On Theory No. 4: "What's wrong with James Dolan?"

When the news broke that Isiah Thomas might be rehired as a Knicks consultant, a New York buddy sent me the following e-mail: "Serious question: Do you think there is something wrong with Dolan? What if it turns out he is mentally ill? Or what if doctors diagnosed a significant social disorder? Do you think Stern would give us our 2012 No. 1 pick back?"

[+] EnlargeJames Dolan
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesUnfortunately, this picture does not include Isiah Thomas.

My answer: There's nothing wrong with Dolan. We've seen terrible owners before. Nobody was worse than Ted Stepien. Nobody shredded the size of a team's fan base faster than Peter Angelos. Nobody has inflicted more damage over a longer period of time than Donald Sterling (not even you, Mike Brown). More recently, William Clay Ford and Al Davis sucked the life out of their fans in unprecedented ways. But Dolan's reign of terror is different for this reason: He doesn't seem to understand (or care) that his fan base regards his every decision with genuine terror.

Here's a fun trick: If you know a Knicks fan, go up to him and ask, "Did you hear about Dolan?"

His response, guaranteed: "Oh, no!"

He won't say "Oh, no, what did he do?" Or "Did we make a trade?" Or even "Is he selling?" You asked about Dolan; that means something bad happened. Oh, no. It's a natural instinct when you assume the absolute worst at all times.

After 10 years, you'd think Dolan would have caught wind of this. Maybe read a few scathing columns, heard a few biting radio rants, had a few unpleasant encounters with fans … and, at some point, would have thought to himself, "God, I'm really bad at this, they hate me, I should sell or get help." Maybe nine solid years of losing would have alerted him. Maybe the booing would have tipped him off. Or the empty seats. Or LeBron and Wade fleeing in the other direction. Something. But either it bounces off him, he's mired in abject denial, he doesn't care what anyone thinks, or he's the least self-aware person who ever owned a major professional sports team.

My theory: I think it's the latter. Isiah's aborted re-hiring -- really, one of the five or six worst ideas in sports history, as well as the quickest way an owner could antagonize his beleaguered fan base short of just turning a fire hose on them -- came from a semi-understandable place. Dolan sees himself as an underdog who's been dumped on his whole life, so he identifies with anyone else fitting that category, even if it's a failed sports executive who turned his team into a laughingstock. Still, Dolan's low level of self-awareness can only be compared to little kids. For instance, when we take my 3-year-old to the beach, he takes his clothes off, refuses to put on a bathing suit, then walks around showing everything off for two hours. He doesn't do this maliciously; there's nothing wrong with him. He's just a little boy. He's incapable of feeling awkward or being uncomfortable.

Same for James Dolan. Although you can't say he doesn't care. Dolan's volatile temper has been his signature trait. His employees usually leave on bad terms. He's battled so many people over the years -- including the mayor of New York, his brothers and his father -- that New York magazine once centered an entire profile around that theme. Once fortune turned against the Knicks, Dolan instituted a bizarre media embargo that had employees creeping around in terror like their clothes were bugged. When New York tabloids raked him over the coals during the Anucha Browne Sanders trial, Dolan stubbornly refused to fire the flailing Thomas. He's obstinately loyal to a handful of people and impossible with everyone else. (One person who worked with Dolan told me, "He doesn't just belittle people. That's too soft of a word. 'Humiliate' is more like it.") And when all else fails, he throws a tantrum. Again, sounds like my 3-year-old son.

Why is Dolan like that? Attend prep school or private school for a few years (I did five) and you'll meet a few legacy kids along the way. They can go one of three ways:

A. Driven to follow Dad's footsteps and become just as successful (if not more).
B. Want no part of Dad's footsteps, would rather create their own.
C. Knew their parents would always provide for them, and become screw-ups.

You could sniff out Group A as early as the ninth grade; we knew which ones had their heads on straight and were headed somewhere. Group C was my favorite: lazy and entitled, headed nowhere, but always throwing great parties because their parents were never home. I never blamed the Group C kids for being like that; their parents were usually too busy to care, so they enabled their kids, looked the other way and made excuses for them. But the Group B kids … they were the fascinating ones. They talked a big game, stuff like, "I'm gonna be a teacher," or "What really matters to me is my music." Sometimes they paved their own way and made it; sometimes they didn't. If they failed, either they stayed failures (belatedly moving into Group C), or sucked it up, swallowed their pride and joined forces with Dad.

James Dolan juggled Group B and Group C. Instead of going to college, he pursued a music career (Group B). When it didn't work out, he left two colleges before belatedly getting his communications degree from SUNY New Paltz (Group C). From there, he begrudgingly went to work for his father (Group B) and battled significant drug and alcohol problems (Group C), and then, to his credit, overcame those problems in his 30s. He sailed competitively (classic Group B) before quitting the sport in a rage (ditto), formed his own jazz band and named it "JD and the Straight Shot" (double ditto), then used (and continued to use) his vast resources to give himself every competitive advantage (triple ditto). New York magazine reported that Dolan even "bought a house adjacent to his own in Oyster Bay, converting it to a studio and arranging for band members to fly in on the Cablevision helicopter for practice."

Everything will make sense when you watch JD and the Straight Shot perform. It's the entire Dolan package on display: the entitled legacy kid who formed a band, overpaid the other members since it's the only way they would EVER play with him, thinks he's good and isn't self-aware enough to know otherwise (as this damning interview/song shows). Knicks fans wonder why their franchise careened into NBA hell, why LeBron ran in the other direction, or why anyone could ever think it would be a good idea to rehire Isiah again? Watch that video while ignoring the unintentional irony of the chorus being, "If you can't lie no better than that, you might as well tell the truth." That guy owns the New York Knicks and New York Rangers. He does.

Legacy kids can succeed or fail as sports owners like anyone else, but one thing sets them apart: They inherited their opportunity with, in some case, no real credentials at all. Let's say I retired in 20 years and turned this column over to my son, but he couldn't write and didn't know anything about sports. You would think this was weird. You would make fun of him. You would say, "Why the hell would ESPN employ Simmons' son, isn't this the strangest thing ever?" In the business world, it's par for the course. It happens all the time. As the old saying goes, James Dolan was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.

So when you hear stories like, "When the Knicks finally had their sitdown with LeBron, Dolan started the meeting by reading awkwardly from prepared notes, exactly like Luca Brasi congratulating Vito Corleone at his daughter's wedding" (and by the way, that's 100 percent true), really, you can't be surprised. This isn't any different than the kid in your neighborhood who took over his dad's hardware store -- the one that's been in town for 60 years, the one that everyone loved -- and ran it into the ground. The Knicks are that hardware store. I hate to break it to you. People keep expecting that Dolan will get the hang of owning the Knicks. It's never going to happen. Next time he does something inexplicable, think of him wobbling naked toward some unsuspecting beach couple with a big smile on his face. It will all make sense. Then again, it's just a theory.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ESPN TOP HEADLINES