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Thursday, June 22, 2006
Switching alpha dogs

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

The enduring image of the 2006 NBA Finals: David Stern handing Dwyane Wade the MVP trophy, Shaquille O'Neal intervening and making sure that HE handed it to Wade, followed by Wade awkwardly grabbing the trophy and hoisting it over his head.

And yes, that's how it happened. I rewound it on TiVo, slow-mo'ed it, everything. No matter how many different ways Shaq claims he doesn't care about being the second-best guy on his own team, it's ludicrous to think he wouldn't care. This is the same guy who compares himself to Bill Russell and never stops touting his own résumé -- now he wouldn't bristle when Dan Patrick asks him a question like, "How does it feel to be the Robin to Dwyane Wade's Batman?"

The Robin to Dwyane Wade's Batman? Excuse me?

Shaq never directly answered the question, and rightly so. It was insulting. But the running "Hey, Shaq, isn't Dwyane Wade great?" subplot nearly became as interesting than the actual Finals. Shaq spent most of Tuesday night making it clear that Wade was Miami's best player, only he kept interjecting himself into the conversation as well. I knew when I came here that I had to take this young fella to the next level. ... I knew that I'd be drawing double and triple teams and he'd make them pay, ... I knew that I didn't have to carry us all the time. Every quote seemed to carry a hidden meaning: "Just remember, I could have been a prick about this whole thing, but I willingly took a backseat to this guy so we could win the title."

Was he right? Absolutely. But I couldn't be the only one who found it riveting to watch Shaq -- begrudgingly or not -- relinquish "Head Alpha Dog" status over these past few weeks. Sometime during the past four weeks, Dwyane Wade matured into the single best player in the league, someone who instinctively balanced the line between deferring to teammates and taking over games (kinda like what we always WANTED Kobe to be, only it never happened). As for Shaq, he had long ago deteriorated into a six-inning pitcher, someone capable of throwing a complete-game shutout once a month. On most nights, his job was to draw double-teams, handle the boards, challenge shots and stay out of the way in crunch time, like a 350-pound version of Robert Parish in the '80s. He just isn't a prevailing force anymore. And I think he knows that. But we never heard him say, "I'm not the same player anymore," or "I'm at a different phase in my career," or even, "We can't win a title if I'm the main guy." There was always a disclaimer. Always.

Does Shaq realize he isn't a superstar anymore? Does he feel like that ability could return any time, like he's on cruise control? We never definitively answered that question. After peaking as a player during 2000-02, Shaq seemed worn out after that (the old "been there/done that" mentality). There was only one way to sustain that level of excellence in his early 30s: By getting into phenomenal shape and staying that way. Which he wasn't even remotely prepared to do. Jordan was pathologically competitive and obsessed with obliterating every challenger, whereas Shaq never wanted to be one of those guys whose life revolved around basketball. He liked spending time with his family, hanging with buddies, making movie cameos, recording bad music, showing up at Hollywood events, going to the movies, organizing celebrity roasts ... you name it, he liked doing it. He didn't want to be waking up at 7:30 a.m. to have some tiny white dude bang a medicine ball against his chest 50 times.

So Big Daddy chose the following path: "I'm going to enjoy myself during the summers, show up out of shape for every training camp, play myself into shape as the season goes along, and give the car keys to Kobe/Wade from November to April. By the time the playoffs roll around, I'll be ready and we'll win again because I will always be the best player in the league whenever I put my mind to it. Nobody can stop me."

Well, that mind-set didn't work in 2003. Or in 2004. Or in 2005 (in Miami). Only when Wade emerged as the league's premiere money player (and the darling of the officiating crews) did Shaq win another title ... in a Finals in which Pat Riley kept him on the bench for large chunks of crunch time in Games 3, 5 and 6, no less.

Which raises an intriguing question: Did Shaq ever expect to win a title when he wasn't the dominant player on his own team? I mean, he seems happy. Very happy, even. Still, this was one of the strangest turn of events in recent NBA history -- the basketball equivalent of James Gandolfini leaving the "Sopranos," joining the cast of "CSI: Hollywood" as the lead guy, then eventually settling into a backup role as some up-and-comer stole the show from him, followed by everyone winning a round of Emmys. Would he be fine with it? Yeah, if he liked the guy and was pulling down decent coin. But it would be a little weird, right?

In the past 30 years, only four players won an MVP award, then won a championship later in their career when they weren't the best guy: Bill Walton (with the '86 Celtics), Kareem (with the '87 and '88 Lakers), David Robinson (with the '99 and '03 Spurs) and Julius Erving (with the '83 Sixers). Throw out the Walton example because he was so happy to be playing again after years of foot injuries, he probably would have moonlighted as the ballboy on that remarkable '86 Celtics team if they had asked him. Robinson never should have won the '95 MVP in the first place; just watch the tapes of Hakeem crushing him in the playoffs that year. Erving couldn't win an NBA title as Philly's best player and probably appreciated the chance to play with Moses.

But the Kareem example -- now there's one that works. Everyone thinks that those Lakers teams in the '80s were Magic's teams. Um, no. During 1980-85, that team belonged to Sweet Lew. Somewhere during the mid-'80s, Magic carefully started pulling the car keys away from him, never made a big deal about it, always pumped up the big guy and quietly took over at the end of games, with '87 being the year when he officially grabbed the reins (and only because Kareem allowed it to happen). The Magic-Kareem dynamic was eerily similar to Wade and Shaq; both Magic and Wade were extremely deferential, gracious almost to a fault, uncomfortable upon the mere mention of questions that begin with "you carried your team tonight," unwilling to take credit for any of the spoils that accompany "alpha dog" status. Both of them played the "this never could have happened without The Big Guy" as much as they possibly could.

To Wade's credit, he embraced Shaq from the start, willingly putting on the sidekick outfit and allowing Shaq to treat him like a little brother. Because he's such a humble guy, I think he liked having someone else who could handle the burdens of being a team's superstar -- leadership responsibilities, constant press attention in 29 different cities, an expectation to show up every night -- so Wade could ease slowly into these things. He needed Shaq and he knew it. So did Magic with Kareem. After the first regular-season game of Magic's career, there's a famous moment when Kareem swishes the game-winning shot against San Diego, followed by Magic wrapping him in a full-body bearhug and refusing to let go. (Meanwhile, poor Kareem had one of those, "Um, it's Game 1 of an 82-game season" looks on his face.) The ongoing Wade-Shaq friendship reminded me of that -- everything Wade did and said smacked of "I'm lucky to be here and I'm not letting go." And after his sobering experience with Kobe, maybe Shaq needed Wade's energy and flattery as much as Wade needed Shaq's experience and approval.

One story from my 2005 All-Star Weekend column seems even more relevant now: Nestle scheduled a H-O-R-S-E event with Shaq at 8:30 on Saturday morning; not an ideal time considering most of these guys stay out late on Friday night. So Shaq shows up late with a mini-entourage and who's with him? Dwyane Wade. As Shaq was warming up on the court, I couldn't resist the urge to amble over to Wade and ask the requisite, "What the hell are you doing here?" question.

"Gotta support the big fella," he said simply.

We've heard Shaq compare Penny/Kobe/Wade to Fredo/Sonny/Michael about 10,000 times at this point, but you know what? He was right about Wade. Showing up at some random function at 8:30 in the morning ... that was the Michael Corleone move. It's not like he WANTED to hang out with a buddy that early. (Think about it -- how many buddies would you give up 2-3 hours of sleep for?) He was paying homage to the Big Fella, which was something that Kobe and Penny never did. And that's why we could be talking about Dwyane Wade long after we're still talking about Kobe and Penny -- he was smart enough to realize from day one that he was holding a winning lottery ticket. The other guys thought THEY were the ticket. Big difference.

When Wade evolved into The Man, Shaq was OK with it, just like Kareem was OK with Magic. The proper avenues of respect had been paved. But it's worth mentioning that The Big Guy never fully adjusted in either case. The Lakers did themselves a disservice near the end by relying on Kareem too much offensively, and he never fully adjusted to his declining offensive skills by picking up his rebounding and shotblocking to help in other ways. Shaq continued to tout his own virtues and play up the Superman persona; he never blanched when the media played the embarrassingly naïve, "Don't forget about Shaq in the Finals, he's still a dominant force!" card after his throwback Game 6 against a truly screwed-up Pistons team (his one great playoff game in two months). You could sense the headstrong way he carried himself before Game 1 -- it almost seemed like he wanted to scream, "Yeah, thanks for all the belated attention, but I can't believe you guys forgot about me, I'm still one of the greatest centers ever!"

So what happened in the Finals? What always happens when there's "alpha dog" confusion on a good team -- Miami stunk for the first two games because nobody was taking over. Facing a sweep in Game 3, Wade slipped on his Batman cape and singlehandedly turned the Finals around. Within 10 days, they were clinching the title in a game poor Shaq scored just nine points and was outshined by Mourning, and all anybody was talking about afterward was "Dwyane Wade." Everything crested when they were standing on the podium together. Wade was preparing for the most triumphant moment of his career -- getting his hands on the NBA Finals MVP trophy, the one thing LeBron doesn't have -- only here came Shaq. Big Daddy had to grab the trophy and hand it to Wade himself. Almost like a big brother crashing a little brother's birthday party by opening the first gift before handing it over.

Was it a big deal? Probably not.

Was it fascinating to watch? Absolutely.

This went way beyond just passing the torch. Holding that MVP trophy over his head, Dwyane Wade realized he was the best player in the league, Shaquille O'Neal realized that it couldn't have happened without him ... and maybe they were both right. I just never imagined seeing Shaquille O'Neal stand on a championship podium, watching someone else holding the Finals MVP trophy, dutifully applauding with the rest of the supporting cast. And I bet he never imagined it, either.


Some other lingering thoughts from the Finals ...

  • In five-plus years of writing for ESPN.com, I can't remember getting a more varied reaction of e-mails than after Tuesday's column -- readers were either euphorically grateful (that a writer with a national platform called out the one-sided officiating) or absolutely furious (that I paid so much attention to the referees and didn't give enough credit to Miami). And there was really no in between. After skimming through about 2,000 e-mails in 24 hours, it seemed like 75 percent of the readers vehemently agreed with me and the other 25 percent wanted me to choke to death on my own vomit. So thanks to everyone who took the time to write in. Yes, even the people who accused me of pulling a Lewinsky on Mark Cuban.

    Reader Rants
    Five e-mails that I couldn't help but pass along:

    Chicago reader Tom Bacsanyi: "As a Detroit fan, suffering through the conference finals made me hate Dwyane Wade. But in watching the Finals, I realized that Wade was not the object of my hatred, he was the subject. Furthermore, I didn't really hate Wade at all, I hated the way the game was called when he was playing. There simply is no explanation for the Heat winning it all other than poor or manipulated officiating. The three best teams in the league were (in no specific order): San Antonio, Detroit, and Dallas. That NONE of these teams won speaks volumes about the NBA's integrity."

    Clover in Syracuse: "I think I farted twice on the couch during this series -- and I was called for two fouls against Dwyane Wade."

    Jonathan in Houston: "Am I the only one who was waiting for David Stern to be introduced to the 'No Chance in Hell' music? I was hoping the lights would [go] out and then come on to reveal the entire Heat team bloodied and down on the ground with Mark Cuban and a folding chair waiting behind David Stern. Don't tell me you weren't thinking the same thing."

    Chris in Hartford: "OK, I'm sure I'm one of a hundred (thousand?) people e-mailing you this, but name another sport that favors its 'stars' more than the NBA? Can you really imagine Clemens or someone getting an extra 6-12 inches on the strike zone in the World Series just because they are a star? Or perhaps Tom Brady getting the benefit of the doubt (pass interference) on 3-4 passes a game because he's 'Tom Brady'? I honestly think the NBA is much closer to the WWE or something than any other 'professional' sport in the world. As a longtime fan (I actually worked for an NBA team for a couple of years) it makes me sick. ... I no longer want to watch the game much like I don't want to watch the WWE -- its all rigged/fixed.

    Josh in Houston: "When the owner of a team has to make a statement publicly to assure the fans that the NBA is not rigged during the NBA Finals, you know there's a real problem in the league. If Stern doesn't realize this now and make some changes, he never will."

    Admittedly, I was angry while writing the column and probably went a little too far at times -- for instance, Miami's supporting cast doesn't "suck" offensively, I shouldn't have written that. The column also meanderered in too many different directions; on the other hand, I hadn't written about the Finals yet and had a ton of stuff to say. So what can you do? I stand by everything I wrote -- the officiating in Game 5 was a disgrace, as was the constant coddling of Wade throughout this series, capped off by the outrageous call near the end of Game 6 when he basically punched Nowitzki in the stomach to get around him ... and they called the foul on Nowitzki.

    But here's the thing: Dallas still didn't do enough to win the series.

    They choked away a 13-point lead near the end of Game 3, capped off by a terrible pass (the Haslem steal) and Nowitzki's missed free throw. They didn't show up for Game 4 -- just an indefensible no-show on every level. I'm giving them somewhat of a pass for Game 5 because of the officiating, but Howard did miss two huge free throws in OT, and they had a number of brainfarts down the stretch (GP getting open for the lefty scoop shot, not double-teaming Wade every time, the ridiculous Haq-A-Shaq strategy that helped put them in the penalty), plus Nowitzki wasn't the best player on the floor for the third straight game. And in Game 6, Miami played its finest game -- dominated the boards, locked down on defense (Dallas shot only 37 percent) and Wade did everything else. Dallas' big mistake was letting a veteran team like Miami's get so close -- once the Heat were a game away, they could smell it. Guys like Walker and Mourning were practically possessed. You could see it.

    Dallas seemed tight down the stretch; Miami seemed cool. Dallas complained for two straight weeks; Miami didn't complain about anything. By Game 6, Avery Johnson looked tighter than a married guy in Vegas who was afraid to get a lap dance at someone else's bachelor party; Pat Riley looked like he was headed to have a bottle of chardonnay on his boat right after the game. Even the body language of the two stars was different -- Wade was cooler than cool, Nowitzki was constantly frowning and yanking his mouthpiece out. I never felt like Miami was better until Game 6, but that's the thing -- the Heat were tougher and more resilient, they could rebound and play defense, and they had one guy who could score whenever he wanted. That's really all you need to win a championship, those three elements. And they didn't fully come together until Tuesday night. Miami wanted it more than Dallas. That's why the Heat won.

    Well, that and the refs.

  • Weirdest moment of the night: Shaq calling Pat Riley the "best coach I've ever had" ... and never mentioning Phil Jackson. What the hell? Seriously, what the hell? That's like Ted Danson claiming that "the cast of 'Becker' is the best cast I've ever had." Then he claimed that this was the favorite championship he'd won -- I hate when athletes say that. Really, this was better than beating Indiana six years ago and shutting up everyone who said, "Shaq can't win the big one?" It was much more fun to score 13 points a game and let Wade do most of the work? Come on. Besides, as the great Willie McGinest once said, "My favorite title is the next one."

  • Second weirdest moment of the night: Pat Riley telling reporters that he would have given all five of his Lakers rings to win one Miami title. Really? All five? Look, we get the point -- you wanted to win the title. But did you really have to crap on Magic, Worthy, Kareem and Coop? I couldn't believe that. Imagine Kareem watching that at home and screaming at the TV, "You bandwagon bastard! I carried you for five titles!" before whipping a bottle of pinot grigio against the wall.

  • Third weirdest moment of the night: Seeing Jason Williams celebrate on the championship podium. It was like seeing Rob Schneider on stage at the Oscars. I can't wait to buy his ring on eBay in eight years.

  • I found myself rooting for Miami in Game 6 because of Antoine Walker, the former Celtics star who needed an entire decade to realize he could never be the best player on a championship team. And I'm STILL not sure he fully realizes it. But that was a classic Antoine game: some absolutely atrocious shot selection; a couple of "no-no-YES!" plays; some big rebounds in traffic; great team defense; tons of passion; a couple of nice passes; even a wiggle thrown in for good measure.

    But after watching him make so many mistakes on so many crappy Celtics teams -- out of the first 200 home games of his career, I probably went to 125 of them -- it was strangely rewarding to see him develop into a valuable role player for a championship team. Never thought I would see the day. Heck, I can still remember the home game when he was getting heckled by a fan in Section 1 and started staring the guy down after every basket. Or the time when he was trying to trash talk a furious Jerry Stackhouse near the end of a win over Detroit, when Stack calmly walked over to him and whispered something into his ear (an unofficial transcript: "If you don't shut up, I'm going to wait for you in the hallway after the game and beat the crap out of you"), followed by Antoine visibly crumbling in fear and skulking away, almost like a little dog that had been admonished. This was NOT a mature guy. Now he has a championship ring. Amazing.

  • Put it this way: If the Avery Johnson-Pat Riley matchup was a 12-round boxing match, the judges would have scored it something like 119-109.

  • Biggest mistake from Tuesday's column: I left out Chauncey Billups and Robbie Benson on my list of "Guys I'd want shooting do-or-die free throws for me in the final seconds." My bad. And while we're on the subject, I left the Eck out of my Papelbon column. Just remember, having a young baby kills 10,000 brain cells a day. You have to believe me.

  • Nowitzki's final playoff averages: 27.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists ... for a total of 41.6 per game. Just shy of the 42 Club. See, it never fails.

  • I still feel a little cheated that we never got to see Stern pass Cuban the trophy ... although it was a fun consolation prize to hear the Commish get booed as he tried to present the Finals MVP to Wade. Has anyone mastered the whole "I'm gonna continue to talk even though I'm getting booed and part of me finds this pretty funny, although there's a small chance I might have everyone in here killed if it gets any louder" moment quite like David Stern? He's the best.

  • Does anyone else find it strange that Pat Riley now talks like an evangelist? When did this happen? Every time he held a press conference, I kept expecting them to flash a 1-700 number on the bottom of the screen. And if they had blown Game 6 after he only packed one suit and one tie (brilliant motivational ploy, by the way), would he have worn the same outfit for Game 7? See, these are the questions that sideline reporters should be asking.

  • Speaking of Riley, how disappointing was it that the "mystery bowl" in the Heat locker room turned out to be filled with cards that read "Fifteen strong?" This thing had become the "Pulp Fiction" briefcase for me -- I didn't know what the heck was in there. By the time the Finals rolled around, I was expecting to find out that it was one of Zo's kidneys or something. Anything was possible. Instead, it ended up being some cards. See, that's why we never found out what was in the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction." Sometimes it's better NOT to know.

  • Biggest gripe about the Finals: That they continue to keep everyone on the court for these subdued, champagne-less celebrations that are about as lively as the missionary position. Is this country really so uptight that we can't watch basketball players pour bubbly on one another because it could lead to a nation-wide drinking problem? Seriously, can we vote on this? Is 12-year-old Brendan in Philly going to be watching gigantic NBA players celebrating with champagne and think to himself, "That's cool, I think I'll start drinking in school! I'm just going in tomorrow and getting hammered!" Gimme a break. Here are seven reasons why the champagne celebration would have pushed the festivities after Game 6 over the top:

    1. Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- beats the look on Stern's face when somebody is pouring champagne on him. It's like somebody randomly decided to pour battery acid on him.

    2. It quadruples the chances of players saying something incredibly dumb and irresponsible on live TV. Imagine what White Chocolate would have been capable of after 15 swigs of bubbly?

    3. There's always one guy who wasn't on the team who interjects himself a little too liberally into the celebration -- usually he's a little Spaulding Smails-ish, like the owner's stepson or something -- and he keeps happily drifting in front of the TV cameras and getting in everyone's way. I always enjoy that guy.

    4. Four words: Jim Gray's ruined suit.

    5. It's much harder to see when you have champagne in your eyes, which means we would have more moments like the one after the 1991 Finals when Bob Costas mistook MJ's wife for his mother (one of the 10 greatest NBA playoff moments of all time).

    6. These guys just won the championship!!!! Why do they have to wait to celebrate? If you found out you won the lottery, would you want to celebrate right away ... or would you want to hang out in the middle of a basketball court holding Gatorade bottles and making awkward conversation for the next hour?

    7. It would have been nice to watch the Miami players happily pour champagne on the referees from Games 3, 5 and 6.

    Oh, well. Maybe next year.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.