The gleaming white sneakers in Shaquille O'Neal's locker look
lacquered, which they are not, and massive, which they are.
First-time visitors to the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room at
the Staples Center gaze at them in wonder, and a brave few,
casting nervous glances to make sure the big man is not in view,
lift up their puny dogs to compare them with O'Neal's size 22s.
Last week one Japanese reporter reached up and discreetly turned
around a can of roll-on deodorant so that the label faced
outward. "Ban," she announced.
It's not often that we have the chance to measure ourselves
against giants, not to mention inspect their personal toilette.
O'Neal affords us that opportunity because, unlike most giants,
he walks among us--though, through Sunday, the NBA Finals had
been more coronation than competition for O'Neal and his Lakers.
He has conjured up comparisons to the recent master of the
postseason while distinguishing himself from Michael Jordan in
the following ways: His Airness never mooned fans from the team
bus; nor did he offer his intestinal insights before an overflow
press gathering. With noble carriage and sublime charisma,
Jordan was Henry V; O'Neal, big, bold and bawdy, is pure Falstaff.
On Sunday, after a 106-103 victory over the Nets in New Jersey,
the Lakers were one win away from a three-peat, and O'Neal was
on the verge of winning a third straight Finals MVP award.
Trying to avoid the label of Worst Team Ever to Play for the
Title, the Nets were even more hapless than expected in trying
to stop the 7'1", 345-pound force of nature who in those three
Lakers wins had averaged 37.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocked
shots and even 3.7 assists. Should L.A. win Game 4 on Wednesday
at Continental Airlines Arena, it would be the first Finals
sweep since the '95 Houston Rockets obliterated the Orlando
Magic, whose 23-year-old version of O'Neal was much less
complete than the current Lakers pivotman.
"It's a big stage," says Lakers forward Rick Fox, "and this is
his time." Indeed, Shaq has so dominated the series, both on and
off the court, that other purple-and-gold mainstays have been
reduced to bit parts. Cataloging Kobe Bryant's various off-court
jerseys has been a pleasant diversion (Hank Aaron, Wayne
Gretzky, Derek Jeter, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Mariano Rivera
and Jackie Robinson over the past few weeks), but the best
all-around player in the world hasn't had to extend himself in
this series because of O'Neal's preeminence. Watching Lakers
coach Phil Jackson try to tie Red Auerbach's record of nine NBA
titles has been interesting, but during games the Zenmeister has
remained seated to a greater degree than usual because his
message to the offense is so clear and simple: Get the ball to
Then, too, on those occasions when the Lakers were stressed, it
was Shaq who talked them off the ledge. Trailing for most of
Game 3, the Nets rallied behind a zone defense that collapsed
two, three and sometimes four men on O'Neal, disrupting the
Lakers' triangle offense and helping New Jersey take a 94-87
lead with 6:44 left. But back came Los Angeles, wrapped in the
Big Security Blanket. "It's at those times that Shaquille
becomes the most influential player in the game," said Jackson.
"He has the ability to calm the effect of the crowd and get
things to happen positively." Shaq talked softly during
timeouts, told his teammates they've been together far too long
to fold, encouraged them to keep sniping at the Nets. They did,
regaining control of the game and getting closer to title number
Because Shaq's influence on his team is so profound, because he
has worked so hard at becoming a complete player and because he
has played through so much pain, he bristles whenever it is
suggested that his oversized body is the primary reason for his
success--a suggestion that is made every night of the season.
"The truth is, I was created by you guys," O'Neal told the media
last week. "When I was a young player having fun, doing movies
and doing albums, you criticized me all the time. I'd hear,
'Shaq O'Neal is a great player, but he doesn't have a
championship. But he's not hitting free throws.' So, after
taking criticism all my life, I know how to turn it into
positive energy." Then he broke out into a huge smile. "So this
is what you created, and I'm glad you did. Thank you, and I love
He got up and left with everybody feeling happy. It was vintage
Shaq, which can also be said about these Finals. While Bryant,
Jackson and the rest did their bit, the series was really all
about Shaq. And what's Shaq all about? Why, bull's-eyes, bare
butts, nipple studs and other 100% true...
To check out our Shaq scrapbook--including all of his SI covers
and stories, plus a career time line--go to cnnsi.com/si_online.
At week's end here's how Shaq's playoff numbers over the past
three seasons compared with Michael Jordan's during the Bulls'
first three-peat, from 1990-91 to '92-93.
THREE-YEAR MICHAEL SHAQUILLE
AVERAGES JORDAN O'NEAL
GAMES 58 55
MINUTES 41.2 42.3
POINTS 33.7 29.6
REBOUNDS 6.4 14.7
ASSISTS 6.6 2.9
STEALS 2.12 0.53
BLOCKS 0.97 2.44
FG% 49.7 54.8
FT% 83.6 52.1
TOP COP Shaq still plans to enter law enforcement when he's done
playing. "I want my book to be different from most retired
players'," says O'Neal, 30, who is under contract, at $21.4
million per year, through 2005-06. "I want people to say, 'Great
high school player, great college player, great NBA player. And
that sumbitch is a sheriff now!' I don't want them saying,
'Great player. That sumbitch is doing TNT now.'"
AMONG THE LILLIPUTIANS When he was taken out of Game 2 with 1:07
left, O'Neal stopped and said to Nets reserve forward Brian
Scalabrine, "Mark's gonna bust your ass." He was referring to
Lakers backup Mark Madsen, who rarely plays. Shaq said it
straight-faced, but Scalabrine knew he was joshing, and it made
him feel good. One of the best things about O'Neal is that he
takes the time to talk to everyone and generally sits or stoops
to make his partner in conversation comfortable.
EARLY-BIRD SPECIAL? Shaq snagged about 80 Game 3 tickets for
relatives who live in and around Newark, his birthplace. With a
mansion in Beverly Hills and a 40,000-square-foot palace in
Isleworth, Fla., near Orlando, Shaq still claims, "I'm a Jersey
guy all the way." Having said that, he's already decided that he
will retire in Florida.
LOVE SHAQ Shaq is pondering marriage to Shaunie Nelson, his
girlfriend of several years, but don't start shopping for
wedding gifts. "I want to do it when I can focus on nothing but
my marriage," he says. "Right now I'm trying to focus on my NBA
career and my police career." Shaq and Shaunie live with a
brood. Taahirah, 5, is Shaq's daughter from a previous
relationship; Myles, 4, is Shaunie's son from a previous
relationship; and Shareef, 2, and Amirah Sanaa, seven months,
are the progeny of Shaq and Shaunie. "Amirah won't go to sleep
until she hears my voice," says Shaq, who on many nights dozes
off with her lying on his chest.
ROYAL FLUSH Shaq has drawn inspiration from Sacramento Kings
coach Rick Adelman, who has continued to complain that Shaq was
allowed to step over the line prematurely on his free throws
during the hotly contested Western Conference final. Before Game
3, O'Neal sent a rhymed message to Adelman: "Don't cry/Dry your
eyes/Here comes Shaq/With those four little guys." Then O'Neal
went out and made 12 of 14 foul shots in a 106-83 victory, after
which he described the exact moment when he heard Adelman's
latest gripes, on a late-night sports broadcast. "I'm in the
bathroom...sitting there, flipping through the channels, and
he's complaining," O'Neal said. In Game 2, O'Neal even vogued
after successful free throws, leaving an extended right arm in
the air for several seconds to accentuate the purity of his
stroke. "Another message to Adelman," he said.
ROYAL FLASH After a heated Game 7 victory in Sacramento, O'Neal
delivered a different message to Kings fans who were hooting at
the Lakers' bus as it pulled away from Arco Arena: He lowered
his pants and showed them his rear end.
ACTION SHAQ-SON Shaq's questionable thespian talents (Kazaam,
Blue Chips, Steel) notwithstanding, he says he would consider a
return to the big screen, "if I can get me an action role where
I can be jumping out windows with some Matrix-type effects." His
career as a rap artist, however, appears to be over. "I did six
albums: one platinum, two gold, three wood."
HOG HEAVEN Shaq began riding motorcycles six years ago. Although
he is reluctant to ride in L.A.--"It's too hilly and curvy, and
the people are crazy," he says--he will tool along level Ventura
Boulevard. "You let the wind hit your face," he says. "You feel
free, you get away from everything and you get to think."
BREAST BEATING Before the Finals, Shaq says, he removed the
diamond studs that are in both of his nipples "for no particular
GETTING RELIGION Shaq heard Louis Farrakhan speak at a Nation of
Islam meeting several months ago. During the Sacramento series
he greeted Kings forward Hedo Turkoglu with an embrace "because
you greet a Muslim man with honor." And he plans to take a
pilgrimage to Mecca one day with his stepfather, Phil Harrison,
a Muslim. Still, Shaq says he has no plans to convert to Islam.
"My mother [Lucille Harrison] is a Baptist, so I understand both
religions," says O'Neal. "Right now I'd just call myself a man
who believes in God."
PISTOL PAQIN' Shaq, usually accompanied by Jerome Crawford, his
bodyguard and close friend, likes to take pistol practice at a
range in Van Nuys. Out of 300 shots from between 25 and 50 yards
he says he routinely scores 265 to 270 bull's-eyes.
KING OF PAIN For all his playfulness, Shaq isn't always the
easiest guy to be around--the Los Angeles Times disclosed last
month that the Big Moody is one of his teammates' out-of-earshot
nicknames. But all the Lakers praise his fortitude in playing
with an arthritic big right toe and a left little toe that was
operated on last year. Shaq puts the pain in his right toe at
eight on a scale of 10. "Your toe is supposed to bend when you
walk," says Shaq, "but mine doesn't at all. I walk flat-footed,
I run flat-footed. The worst time is the morning after games,
when I wake up and can't even move it. I lie there and think, I
gotta play basketball on this? But I suck it up. Some people who
think I'm not hurting should walk a mile in my shoes."
WILT TO THE HILT
Comparisons between O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain have come up
frequently during the Finals. (Bryant, incidentally, gave Shaq
the nickname of Wilt Chamberneezy; Shaq had it inscribed on a
baseball cap.) It's not only contemporary chroniclers who find
O'Neal as formidable as the man who in '61-62 averaged 50.4
points. "People think it's all power with Shaq, but they're
wrong," says 86-year-old Pete Newell, the big-man guru who
coached against Wilt and who schooled Shaq at his off-season
camp in the early '90s. "Here's what I've seen him do in one
game: bank off the glass. Little lob hook in the paint.
Step-back move on the baseline. Quick spin move, then come out
on the other side of the basket to shoot. And a neat
step-through move when he was doubled or tripled. Go over the
history of centers, and can you remember anyone showing all
that? Maybe Hakeem Olajuwon, but he didn't have a power game.
Wilt? Mikan? Kareem? Russell? No way. None of the great centers
had Shaq's moves and counters, and none of them, including Wilt,
had his strength." Another underrated aspect of Shaq's game, as
Nets center Todd MacCulloch has observed, is that he is
comfortable setting up on either block and can also shoot from
the middle of the lane.
7'1", 275 pounds
Career totals (1959-60 to '72-73)
30.1 ppg, 22.9 rpg, 4.4 apg
54.0 FG%, 51.1 FT%
7'1", 345 pounds
Career totals (1992-93 to '01-02)
27.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 2.8 apg
57.7 FG%, 53.3 FT%