Excerpted from "The Art of the Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA", by Chris Ballard. Copyright © 2009 by Chris Ballard. Published by Simon & Schuster/SI Books.
This excerpt comes from Chapter 10, which is about the evolution of big men in the NBA and focuses on Yao Ming (including the effect U2's "Desire has on his driving ability), Dirk Nowitzki (and how he changed the role of the big man forever) and Shaquille O'Neal.
Late one evening, driving back to my hotel after covering a Suns game in Phoenix, I encountered a most unusual sight. This was in February 2009, and the Suns, struggling at the time, had cruised to a rare blowout win earlier in the night. Center Shaquille O'Neal had inflicted much of the damage, scoring 45 points and playing like a man a decade younger than his 36 years. Repeatedly he caught entry passes, dribbled once or twice -- burrowing into the soft Toronto interior defense -- then pump-faked before cramming the ball in the basket so hard the stanchion nearly collapsed.
I was 20 minutes into my postgame drive, tooling along in my rental car, a Volkswagen Jetta, when I pulled up to a red light on a two-lane suburban road in Scottsdale. I heard a strange gurgling to my left. Glancing over, I saw the longest, shiniest motorcycle fork imaginable, above which ran a similarly extensive set of silver handlebars, all of it attached to a tricked-out three-wheeler boasting a resplendent, sparkling spoiler. The machine was so big and otherworldly, like some vision from an apocalyptic future in which all earthly things had grown exponentially, that at first I didn't recognize the man astride it, for he looked comparatively normal-sized. Helmetless, eyes covered by sunglasses, he wore a tan T-shirt, tan sweatpants rolled up to his knees and tan high-tops. The same clothes, it occurred to me, that O'Neal had been wearing in the locker room after the game.
The light turned green, and the three-wheeler tore off the line and into the distance, an SUV following a ways behind (which I figured to be Shaq's trail car). It was a surreal experience seeing the big man out and about like this, and that would have been the end of it except that, down the road, O'Neal came to a stop at another red light. My hotel turnoff was at hand, but I couldn't resist; when would I have another opportunity to drag-race Shaq? So I ignored my turn and kept going, pulling up next to O'Neal at the light. Glancing in his direction, I revved the rental Jetta's engine, producing a noise akin to a garbage disposal choking on a fork. O'Neal looked over, mildly surprised.
Now, at this point, let's stop to consider what this encounter tells us about O'Neal. First of all, here is an NBA Hall of Famer and global icon who, on a Friday night after a game, does not hide behind tinted windows or the bulk of a giant SUV but rather rides home on some crazy look-at-me contraption, instantly recognizable to every other motorist. Can you picture Kobe or Jordan doing this? Second, O'Neal must anticipate the reaction when he does this, because who knows how many other civilians get it into their heads, as I did, that they should try to race the Big Fella off the line, hoping to goad him into doing something spontaneous and human and, yes, probably a little dumb.
Surely he was inured to such provocations by now, right? I figured it was worth a shot anyway.
The light turned green, and I let him have it, slamming the gas pedal down and pushing the Jetta for all it was worth, which, to be honest, was about a metaphorical buck-fifty.
After 50 yards or so, I was alone on the road.
Then, just as I was considering laying off the gas, disappointed that Shaq hadn't taken the bait, I glanced in my rearview mirror to see, approaching at approximately the speed of a cruise missile, the single, frosted headlight of O'Neal's bike. He passed me doing 100 or so and disappeared, taillights twinkling, like some crescent-bearded demon let loose into the Scottsdale night.
Only he hit another red light, so we did it again, and again Shaq torched my Jetta before continuing on to wherever it is All-Stars go after they score 45 points. Me, I U-turned and headed back to my hotel, where I immediately recounted this story to the bartender, who I'm pretty sure didn't believe a word of it. (Two nights later, when I saw Shaq at the arena and told him my tale, he smiled and said, "All right, so that was you in the Jetta.")
And here's the thing about Shaq: This was not some isolated instance. No NBA player in history has embraced his bigness quite as O'Neal has. Figuratively and literally, he has lived an outsized life, the biggest, baddest, goofiest dude in every room. After all, this is a guy who once came out at an All-Star Game and performed an 80-second routine with the Jabbawockeez dance troupe; who became one of the first NBA athletes to employ Twitter and then, naturally, used it to invite fans to initiate conversations when he was out for lunch; who continued to make movies and rap albums even though it was clear early on that he wasn't especially good at either.
Likewise, he is totally content in his own skin when on the court. When coaches told him to lose weight, he ignored them. When they counseled that, in deference to increasing age, he should develop finesse moves to complement his bull-to-the-basket approach, he instead opted to bull harder. Sure, he claims to have a diverse game. As he once told Bob Young of The Arizona Republic, detailing his post repertoire, "My game is different. It's a mixture of everybody's game. when I was coming up, I was like, 'O.K., spin lob -- David Robinson. Get the knees up -- Rony Seikaly. Bow people in the face and look mean -- Patrick Ewing.' Then I just added a little of my own." Really, though, for the entirety of his two-decade NBA career O'Neal's offensive strategy could be summed up as Just Try to Stop My Big Ass.
Now, this may seem like an obvious basketball strategy for any NBA giant, but it is not. Not all big men think of themselves as big, or even know how to be big for that matter. An example: That same weekend, I watched as O'Neal lumbered into the Suns' locker room before a game and, midway through his stroll to the training room, fixed his eyes on Robin Lopez, the Suns' 7-foot, 255-pound rookie reserve center with the haystack hairdo.
"Why you always bending over?" Shaq asked, though it was really more of a declaration.
"Huh?" said Lopez.
"You're always bending over. You're a 7-footer. Be a 7-footer!"
"Seriously, you're down here, and it's like you're 6-3" -- and here Shaq mimicked Lopez, bent at the waist playing defense -- "You do that, and I can just turn and shoot over you."
Lopez nodded, unsure of what to say.
Shaq continued. "There's only a few guys in this league who can hurt you down there. Gasol, Jefferson, Howard, Yao. The rest ain't gonna do s---."
O'Neal started walking, continuing toward the treatment room on the far side of the locker room, then swiveled. "You know what it is?
You don't like being tall. You don't like being tall at all."
"Huh?" said Lopez
Now O'Neal turned to Grant Hill, the Suns' forward, who was sitting at his locker nearby, checking his cellphone.
"Am I right, Grant? He don't like being tall."
Hill looked up. "I'm not getting in the middle of this one."
"Tell you, man, you don't like being tall."
Shaq paused, then summed up what may be the real secret to being big. "The thing about being a seven-footer," he said. "You gotta like it.
You gotta like it."