'Shaqspeare' spreads word in NBA

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Mercifully, appropriately and lucky for us.

In the NBA, it's even more so. When you think of the most famous quotes in sports history, how many of them have come from people in pro hoops? In this league, there's no one in Yogi Berra's or Muhammad Ali's league when it comes to utterances for the ages. No "It's not over till it's over'' or "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'' in the transcription files or the audio reels, especially among the game's greatest talents.

Maybe that's why Shaquille O'Neal has been yapping so much, and so hard, lately. Maybe he is determined to punctuate his Hall of Fame career as the NBA's Big Orator. Or, depending on your point of view, its Big Windbag. We could split the difference and just refer to him as Shaqspeare. He careers wildly over the line of decorum sometimes (dropping F-bombs in live postgame chats) and can make himself sound silly, petty or mean. But he also brings spice and personality to a league whose marquee names are too often defined by their stats, their contracts and the ways they tug their jerseys or pour rosin.

Seriously, what's the most memorable quote in pro basketball history? Moses Malone's "Fo', fo', fo','' his minimalist prediction for Philadelphia's 1983 NBA title run (he missed by one -- it actually was fo', fi', fo')? Wilt Chamberlain's "Nobody roots for Goliath?" Allen Iverson's "Practice? We're talking about practice?'' Charles Barkley is known for his "I'm not a role model'' stance but that was scripted for a commercial, and most of his other quips/shots have come as a broadcaster, not a player. For all his athletic accomplishments, Michael Jordan's most famous comment probably is "Republicans buy sneakers, too'' when he declined to endorse Jesse Helms' opponent in a Senate race in his home state of North Carolina. That, or "Maybe you should sell the team'' when he lipped back at Washington owner Abe Pollin during the 1998-99 lockout.

But Julius Erving? Jerry West? Bill Russell? Larry Bird? Hakeem Olajuwon? Kobe Bryant? LeBron James? It's hard to think of a single, classic statement -- ideally, heavy on humor, inspiration, insight or word play -- coming from any of them. Many good, competitive thoughts perhaps, but no quote for all time.

Baseball, by contrast, is brimming with them, from Leo Durocher's "Nice guys finish last'' to Babe Ruth's justifying a salary bigger than President Hoover's ("I had a better year than him''). Football has plenty, too, whether it's Knute Rockne's Gipper speech, Jim Mora's Iverson-like "Playoffs?!'' or Hank Stram, miked for Super Bowl IV, urging Kansas City, "Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys.''

Stram's father was a professional wrestler, which might have rubbed off on his son and could have a little something to do with O'Neal's propensity to spout, chide, bloviate and needle. Anytime the Phoenix center gets pinned down on a remark that seems particularly harsh or untoward -- like his recent drive-by scathings of Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, Toronto forward Chris Bosh, Magic center Dwight Howard and even Van Gundy assistant Patrick Ewing -- his default excuse is that it's all marketing, as if he were stirring up fan interest for a WrestleMania with Vince McMahon.

Maybe when skin gets stretched around a guy Shaq's size, it invariably ends up thin. It sure sounded that way when he eviscerated Van Gundy for an admittedly odd but relatively harmless dig at O'Neal for a flop against Howard last week in Orlando. It was a tweak at a guy who abhors and complains about such unmanly theatrics from opponents, and who even admitted as he bristled back that he had, indeed, flopped. But O'Neal fired back, ridiculing Van Gundy's career and alleging that his former Miami coach tends to "panic'' in tough situations. In sporting parlance, that's the equivalent of saying a player chokes, hitting below the belt worse than, well, some actual blows below the belt.

O"Neal rankled Bosh after the Raptors' All-Star forward wondered about the bigger man's ability to linger in the lane without eliciting three-second calls. That, too, was met with overkill: Shaq compared Bosh to RuPaul (and immediately aggravating Dennis Rodman, who figured he had the NBA player-in-drag category locked up long ago). Then there was Shaq's two-for-one insult when he mocked a play by Howard in the post as a "same old stale Patrick Ewing move.''

It still isn't clear why Van Gundy shined so bright a light on O'Neal's attempt to draw a charging foul on Howard, saying in his postgame session that night that he was "shocked'' and "very disappointed'' by the ploy. It isn't as if Shaq doesn't have a few coming, given what defenders have pulled against him, many on Van Gundy's watch in their one-and-a-quarter seasons together. Howard, who not only holds O'Neal's old job as Orlando center but also has glommed onto his Man of Steel imagery, is a logical foil, especially being 13 years younger in their May-December rivalry.

Bosh's comment was more mild, coming in the normal flow of postgame conversation after facing a unique player Bosh sees only a couple of times each season now. Yet Shaq pulled a blunt ax on all of them, where a scalpel would have done fine.

"No, these are not his normal comments,'' Van Gundy told reporters, when the he-said, he-said got volleyed back to him. "He usually tries to fake like he's being humorous so he can back away from the comments at a later time. But he didn't do it this time. Obviously, Shaq is a very sensitive guy. I struck a nerve and hurt his feelings, and I'm sorry.''

To which O'Neal basically countered: Stick it.

Said Howard: "We're not really worried about whatever anybody says about Coach. Why fight with somebody about words? I don't believe, deep down in his heart, he thinks anything bad about me or Coach Van Gundy.''

Maybe that's it, the fact that all of this is nothing but words. Well, feelings, too. But even if it's personal, at least it's not physical. O'Neal has reined himself in remarkably well through his 17 seasons, squashing no one, trouncing few. His elbows only rarely rattle defender's jaws in super-slow motion the way they did Dikembe Mutombo's in the 2001 NBA Finals -- think of that fat sideshow guy, in vintage video, catching the cannonball with his gut -- and Shaq has a surprisingly small number of flagrant fouls over the years, considering the space he inhabits in relation to other players' heads and necks.

So careful not to be a bully with his body, he might be letting it fly with his mouth. He has done it before, from full-frontal shots at Bryant to his bad Chinese schtick early in Yao Ming's career.

Other critics see this as a more ugly change in O'Neal, a desperation born of advancing age (37), a Suns team with limited postseason potential and a creeping awareness that -- recent resurgence in his individual play notwithstanding -- the spotlight and soapbox might not be his much longer. That could explain the meanness crowding out what used to be playfulness or gentle teasing (although linking the issue of flopping to a shot at Van Gundy's career was clever, true or not).

Me, I prefer to see Shaq as affirming his place as the NBA's most quotable superstar ever as well as its ultimate entertainer. The same guy who can grab attention as a JabbaWockeeZ mime in the All-Star introductions can make noise, too, when the mask comes off and his mouth actually moves.