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Friday, June 3, 2005
Updated: June 21, 10:48 PM ET
Who is the real Shaquille?

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

With 9:11 left in the game, Stan Van Gundy watched the future of the Miami Heat franchise walk toward the locker room. And as he looked at the bench, he knew.

Thirty feet away, Larry Brown could be heard telling his players, "We have three and a half minutes to get it to eight."

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaq has done what he can on the court against the Pistons, but his leg injury is really limiting him.
As Shaq rose off the bench to get back in the game, he knew – just like Van Gundy – what needed to be done.

The question, even with Miami holding a 78-62 lead, was whether Shaq by himself, without Dwyane Wade for the rest of the game, would be enough. Every second half in every game of this series has been worse than the first for him. And now he had to do what he used to do, but up until now didn't need to do – or couldn't do – this year.

Shaq's wife, Shaunie, sat in the stands.

She knew.

So did Heat president Pat Riley (who could be seen). The team's principal owner/general partner, Micky Arison (who remained unseen), had to know, too.

They all knew.

It was time for the leader to lead. After 13 years in the league, Big's rep was on the line. And this time, for the first time, he didn't have a sidekick to balance the act.

Five points and two rebounds later, his job was done. In the end, he sat on the bench, towel wrapped around his neck, watching Alonzo Mourning carry the weight of maybe the biggest win in the franchise's history.

Twenty points and five rebounds were Shaq's final numbers. He had 14 and three at halftime. Another second half of nothing. Another un-dominating performance from the player everyone calls the most dominant of all time. Still, he got to speak to Craig Sager after the game.

Can it be said now? Shaquille O'Neal is overrated.

Or are we all missing something?

*****

There's a story about Shaquille O'Neal that cannot be written. It's the one about the flaws in his game that have nothing to do with free throws, his lack of commitment, his insecurities as a teammate and person, or how he always plays the victim.

No one will write that story because Shaq is Shaq – the nicest guy in the world, the guy with the heart of a kid, the most unpretentious superstar in professional sports. No media person in his right (or write) mind would degrade Shaq in print. It's career suicide. It isn't worth it.

So let's start here.

In the house of Cheryl Rodgers. Laker fan for life. Residence: Inglewood, Calif.

She'll publicly say: "I hate Shaq! Make sure you print that!"

When I ask why, her answer takes us through half a quarter of the game.

Like others – journalists in Chicago, entrepreneurs in Atlanta, haters in D.C. – she has her reasons. Most stem from the flawless way the media (and most fans) portray Shaq. Outside of his free-throw shooting, nothing bad is ever said about him.

You hear it all the time. Shaq this, Shaq that, he's the MVP every year, he's the greatest of all time.

In Phoenix this year, the hate got thick. MVP? He let Shawn Marion average more rebounds than he did this season. Some thought his consideration was racial. Not Nash's. Averages of 22.9 and 10.4 aren't MVP numbers, not for "He Who Is Most Dominant," who has career averages of 26.7 and 12.0. Why deny the white guy consideration in a year when Shaquille, from a statistical perspective, had an un-Shaq-like season?

But it's in L.A. where the pendulum really swings. Where a mother of two, inside a small house down the street from the old Forum, speaks for millions.

Ms. Rodgers will tell you a story about a Steve Harvey and John Salley conversation that took place on 100.3 FM The Beat over a month ago. She'll tell you how Steve and John got into an argument on the air about the whole Shaq/Kobe deal. She'll tell you how Steve sided with Diesel while John said Shaquille needs to let the whole thing die. Saying to Steve, "You're talking about Kobe, but Shaq's the one running around here not letting it go. He's the one saying the Lakers did him wrong. Kobe isn't saying anything. He's in Europe, vacationing with his wife."

She'll tell you how on the next day, Shaq himself called in to the radio station and said, "[Salley] rode our backs to get his rings."

She'll tell you how Shaq then called Salley a sellout, an Uncle Tom.

Then she'll pop in a cassette. She'll speak no longer. The next voice you hear belongs to John Salley.

"A sellout? If I see Shaq, I'm punching him in the face. I mean, I love the brotha and he's [my] frat, but … "

Shaquille O'Neal & Dwyane Wade
But even on the bench, Shaq has continued to help counsel Dwyane Wade.
For over 10 minutes, Salley, who considered Shaq a friend, who played with him, who won a ring with him, publicly severed his relationship with one of the most "untouchable" athletes in sports.

And he didn't seem to care.

What does any of this have to do with the Heat's situation? What does it have to do with Shaq's impact on the game, on his influence on whether the Heat get to the Finals?

Nothing.

But it is an extended look at his life and the complications that surround him because of what he does and who he has become.

To some people, he is Reason No. 1 the Lakers turned out the way they did this year – by "not showing the same type of commitment the last two years the way he did this year." To others, he saved basketball by going East and is showing everybody that he is the "best" basketball player in the world, bar none. After all, he's taking a team that was average last year to the promised land this year.

It's all interweaved through his life. It's all become his life.

And just when you think you have everything figured out about Shaq, just when you've drawn your conclusion that there might be some validity to calling him overrated … he does what he did last night, both during and after the game (when he publicly insisted that he pay for George Mikan's funeral because he heard the family was having financial problems due to the medical bills incurred during George's illness). And instantly, you feel ashamed of yourself. And you start to understand that this guy is bigger than basketball, and for us to judge him on that alone – good or bad – might be justified, but is simply unfair.

*****

The blood in his leg fills up after every game. Often, it has to be drained. Lots of it. It's been his routine since the last week of the regular season, when Jermaine O'Neal turned to try to score and his knee – at full speed – found the inside of Shaq's thigh. Ask any doctor and they'll tell you it takes eight weeks for an injury like that to heal, four weeks before you should even walk on it. And that's if it's a regular bruise. Jermaine is 7 feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. Shaq is bigger than that. The bigger the bang, the bigger the bruise.

Shaq had less than 10 days to rest it. So the blood keeps filling up.

Here's the benefit of the doubt: Shaquille O'Neal is playing at 40 percent capacity. Not 75 percent, like the media and the Heat have been reporting. He's averaging career lows in everything during the playoffs, yet he has his team (not D-Wade's team) one game away from doing what Giacomo did in the Derby.

Somehow, the Heat are refusing to play at a normal level. They aren't playing like a team with a 40 percent Shaq should be playing against the defending champs.

Now let's go back to the original statement: Shaquille O'Neal is overrated.

If you simply look at the numbers he put up in the second half of Game 5 (and his numbers throughout the playoffs, for that matter) and still give him credit for the Heat's 3-2 lead in the series, then it is you who doesn't understand.

Shaq won that game for Miami last night in January – when he took Rasual Butler out to lunch while they were in Portland and gave him a pep talk, telling him to keep his head up and that his time would come.

Shaquille O'Neal & team
Shaq's influence on the rest of the Miami team is immeasurable.
Rasual had 14 in Thursday night's game. He was D-Wade in the fourth quarter. All praises due to Shaq.

Go back to Game 2. Shaq scored 17 and grabbed 10. But he won that game, too. He won it at 3:45 a.m. the day of the game. With that call to Dwyane. Calming him down, playing Daddy. Telling him that if he just did this and that, if he just believed in himself "the way I do," everything will be all right. Wade dropped 40.

He said in SI that, at times, he "yelled at" Penny and Kobe. The other day, he called D-Wade and talked. Recognize. The outcome didn't lie.

So as the blood keeps building inside of his leg, his influence becomes more evident the longer he doesn't play like himself. Now the question is this: How do you coach against that?

It's forever been preached that the G.O.A.T.s always make the players around them better. But what do you say about someone who isn't making his teammates better? That he's making them more confident, instead, because they're doing it without him?

How does one hate on that?

Of all the negatives that can be found in Shaq's play now, even taking the seriousness of injury into full consideration, the one thing that overrides them all is what he's been able to do to and for his teammates without even being on the floor.

His impact is so much deeper than 40 points/20 rebounds now.

It's not about him, yet it's all about him. Shaq has apparently reached the point in his career that his dominance is becoming more psychological than physical, more presence than play.

He's Kareem when Magic first came to town.

If we think about it, openly and honestly, he's never been on a team where he didn't have to fight anyone for leadership. For the first time in Shaq's professional basketball life, he's able to do what he's claimed for years he's always had the ability to do: Lead by more than just example.

And the Heat are one win from turning him from Diesel to Prophet.

Jermaine O'Neal might have done him a favor.

*****

So where do you stand with Shaq?

Even after reading this.

Has anything changed? Appreciate him more, hate him less? Versa-vice?

It's not like this overt love/extreme hate thing the world has with Shaq is anything new. He's had to deal with it all his life. At points, he uses it against himself, to push him past his potential, to prove "the haters" wrong. Once in 1999, he made a comment to me that sums up his feelings about how the world, at times, feels about him: "Everyone has a right to their opinions," he said. "And the stuff they say (about me) only shows me that in some way, they respect me. Hey, I must not be that bad of a person when the only bad thing about me you can say is that I'm not a good free-throw shooter."

Six years later, it seems that's all the media is saying is "bad" abut Shaq. The public and the haters, though . . . they seem to be searching for something more.

Will you say that he's overrated and over-loved? Or will you realize that now you can no longer judge his game by the numbers he puts up while he's on the floor? Will you sympathize with the injury and empathize with what he has to go through every night to help his team win a championship? Will you be ticked off, like so many people in L.A., that he didn't do this for the Lakers? Will you understand that even if he wanted to in L.A., he couldn't? Will you have an issue with him publicly calling another black man, someone who used to be his friend, an Uncle Tom? Will you be pulling for Shaq to win or lose come Saturday? Come Monday? Come next Thursday?

Do you really care that that story of Shaquille O'Neal will never be written?

Maybe you shouldn't.

Because in reality, once you take all he's done on and off the court – all that he stands for on and off the court, all he represents on and off the court – if you take all of that into consideration when you judge Shaq's greatness as both a man and a basketball player … once that's done, that story really doesn't exist.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.