Lang Whitaker
Monday June 21st, 2004

How the heck do you do this? It's the first day of Scorecard Daily and somehow I draw an opening assignment. Great. I'm the next batter after Barry Bonds cranks a grand slam. I'm the first guy to putt on the seventh green at Shinnecock. I'm the wedge-buster on a Dante Hall punt return. I better take this seriously and make it good enough so that my editors don't get bored and start working on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

The biggest question you readers might have is, Why me? Why do my words carry any weight? (I know why I carry weight, but talk of my sedentary writer's lifestyle and deep-seated adoration for steak frites will wait for a different week.) As for me, well, I'm a writer. I was born in Atlanta, went to the University of Georgia and now live in New York City. I'm married, and my wife and I have a dog of unknown age named Starbury. We have no children. I am the online editor at the relentlessly cool basketball magazine SLAM, and I write stories (mostly about the NBA) for the magazine and a daily NBA column on the Web site. I've written for a bunch of other magazines, too. I travel a lot, both for work and pleasure. I listen to all kinds of music, but mostly hip-hop, jazz, R&B. I like TV, I like movies. I really like the NBA, soccer, college and pro football, baseball and golf. I'm starting to like NASCAR and rugby. The Atlanta Hawks are my favorite sports team, and I support the Braves, the Falcons and UGA.

Eventually (this morning at about 3 a.m.), it came time for me to write this thing, to bust that wedge open. I licked my palms and wiped the soles of my shoes. I bent my knees and tapped the mouse twice directly in front of me and then once on my right, like Rip Hamilton at the free throw line. I crossed myself and made the peace sign with my right hand, then pounded my hand to my heart twice.

I sat down to write, but then got distracted by this.

And then this.

And then this.

After a visit from Leo Mazzone, I focused and wrote my first sentence: In the beginning, there was Shaq.

Not bad. Got a Biblical reference in there, it's tight, sounds kinda cool. That'll work.

In my virtual arena my mom, sitting in the front row, jumped to her feet and waved a hand-written sign: THAT'S MY BABY! The season-ticket holders smiled appreciatively, respecting the effort but knowing they'd seen better. A drunken guy in cheap seats hollered "You the man!"

My personal PA announcer, John Mason from Detroit, exclaimed, "That sentence by La-La-La-La-La-Lang Whitaker!"

Marv Albert hollered, "YES!"

"He typed that right between the eyes!" screamed Kevin Harlan.

OK, so let's move on. In the beginning, there was Shaq. And the Shaq was, for the most part, really friggin' good. His first few years in Orlando, the Diesel was a wrecking machine, regularly breaking basket supports and toppling 24-second clocks. That Shaq hasn't been around in a while. In fact, for the last two seasons, Shaq has been comparatively quiet. No more movies, no more albums, not even an SI cover. The most notable thing he's done may have been wearing those ridiculous shoes -- the ones that had his name in lights -- in the All-Star Game.

Now the Lakers seem ready to write him off. Phil Jackson said he's finished with LA, and after Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak more or less drooled all over Kobe Bryant during a press conference last week, Shaq announced that he wants out.

Why are the Lakers so quick to embrace Kobe and so willing to divorce Shaq?

Kobe is six years younger than Shaq, he's been more durable over the last three years, and even if he signs a max contract with the Lakers (seven years, $140 million) he'll still be paid less than Shaq is due over the next couple of seasons.

Kobe can also be inexplicable. Remember the playoff game against Sacramento in which he refused to shoot? Remember how he announced that he would become a free agent during last June's NBA Draft, a year before he could become a free agent? Remember that when he was arrested in Colorado last July and charged with sexual assault, he was in town for knee surgery the Lakers knew nothing about? Remember the bizarre press release before opening day last October, in which Kobe called Shaq fat, criticized him for wanting a contract extension and said he shouldn't demand the ball every time down the court?

Kobe is a franchise player. He can score with his eyes closed and he's first-team all-defense. When it comes to maturity level, he's no Ron Artest, but he's not Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan, either, guys who nearly always say the right things. The Lakers must feel that Kobe's ready to lead his own team, and by letting Shaq go, Los Angeles brass is admitting that Shaq isn't the player he was. Shaq, in fact, had the lowest average (21.5 per game) of his career in 2003-04, and he's played just 67 games in each of the last three seasons.

Or maybe the Lakers have to deal one of them because they can't get along. When I talked to Shaq in the spring of 2001 for a SLAM feature, I pointed out that he and Penny Hardaway had a hard time getting along in Orlando. I asked Shaq if his deteriorating relationship with Kobe was his fault, if perhaps he had difficulty getting along with his teammates.

"They've got to get along with me," Shaq said. "I don't have to get along with nobody. They've got to get along with me. I'm a team player, I do the f------ right thing. But I ain't going to be out there messing around, running up and down the court for 15 minutes without touching the ball because guys want to do their thing. We ain't going to win like that. If they don't like it, then the system will do what the system has to do. It's all business. Whatever has to be done will be done."

Last week, I was in Detroit for the NBA Finals. After Game 3, in which the Lakers lost by eight points after Kobe began firing up a collection of wild shots, I saw Shaq walking onto the podium from behind the media room just as Kobe was finishing his session. They crossed paths in a remote hallway, and with just a few people watching, Shaq threw up a forearm, which Kobe smashed back with his arm. No words were spoken, but there was clearly some love left between the two.

After he addressed the media, I ran into Shaq in the hallway. I had just one question: With the Lakers down 2-1, how could they fix what was hurting them? "We gotta play smart," he said. "People are trying to do s--- they can't do. We gotta throw me the f------ ball."

That never happened, and the Lakers lost every game in Detroit.

By announcing he wants out, Shaq is forcing the Lakers' hand. While trading him won't be easy because of his contract (he's due around $60 million over the next two seasons) there are teams that will (Dallas) and teams that should (Orlando) move heaven and earth to get him.

Soon the Lakers will be Kobe's team, with a coach Kobe has approved and teammates he wants to bring in. But he won't the most dominant big man in the league. And maybe then will Kobe realize that he's missing what he had all along.

"I had blisters on my heels at the end of the game. The thread that these socks were made with is too rough." --Christian Panucci, Italian National Soccer Team defender, explaining his poor performance in their Euro 2004 opening game tie against Denmark.

I'm not sure what language this article is in, but during a concert in Norway, a fan threw pop star David Bowie what appears to be either a lollipop or a spoon. Bowie accidentally caught the object with his eye. The pictures are fantastic.

The New York Knicks parted ways with Marv Albert after more than three decades, in part because they didn't want to pay his salary, which was reported to be between $1 and $2 million. For what it's worth, the Knicks are slated to pay approximately $97 million in salary next season to the players who finished last season 39-43.

"My eyes are very red. I can't play. I can't focus on the ball. I can't focus on my swing." --Carlos Franco, golfer, who withdrew after one day of the U.S. Open because of allergies. He was 9-over par at the time.

Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling called Boston manager Terry Francona at 4:35 a.m. last Thursday to tell him he was encouraged by the condition of his right ankle after his start the previous day.

When his Pistons won the NBA Championship, Joe Dumars became the first African-American to not only make the NBA Finals as a player, but also to win a championship as general manager.

"JEOPARDY!" -- Don't know if you're keeping track, but a guy named Ken Jennings -- who looks alarmingly like Nets coach Lawrence Frank -- has won on Jeopardy! for 13 straight nights, amassing $440,158 in prize money. In elementary school, guys like this were called nerds. Now Jennings is well off. He tries to continue his dominance tonight.

DRAFT CENTRAL -- The NBA Expansion Draft is Tuesday, the NBA Amateur Draft is Thursday and the NHL Amateur Draft is Saturday. Quick question: In which of those three events will Andris Biedrins be involved?

WIMBLEDON -- The venerable tournament began this morning in London. Nothing goes together like Venus and Serena, strawberries and cream, and Bud Collins and horrible plaid.

STRIKERS -- The Metrostars take on the LA Galaxy on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. With a break in World Cup qualifying, both teams will be at full strength, and the first-place Galaxy will be attempting to avenge their loss to the Metros last Saturday in Jersey.

THE GRAHAM NORTON EFFECT -- He's British and he's gay, but unless you're Matt Millen you don't have a problem with that, right? I have no idea what this new show will be like, but his old gig on the BBC was howlingly funny, unlike most American late-night TV. The new show debuts on Thursday night on Comedy Central.

HE ENDORSES THIS COLUMN -- Now that Ken Griffey Jr. has finally reached the 500th home run milestone, we will turn our attention to Fred McGriff, who is sitting on 493. Seven more dingers and Tom Emanski will be in tears. The mighty D-Rays start a three game set in Toronto on Tuesday.

Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He really hopes the Hawks draft Dwight Howard.

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