These playoffsunofficially mark the beginning of Shaquille O'Neal's long farewell. At 34 heis showing unmistakable signs of decline, and the league isn't making thingseasier for him. Hand-checking rules instituted two years ago to liberateperimeter players and the newly rigorous policing of his post moves have forcedShaq to work harder than ever for his numbers. The result: a relativelypedestrian 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game through Sunday, when O'Neal'sHeat took a 3-1 lead over the New Jersey Nets in their second-round series."They say two things: either that '[Nets center] Jason Collins stopped him'or 'Shaq's getting f-----' old,'" says O'Neal. "And [they're] right: Iam getting older." ¬∂ The Diesel has never been more vulnerable on abasketball court. Nor, however, has he ever been more resourceful, moreunpredictable, more interesting, more human. No longer the one-dimensionaldunker of his youth, O'Neal has worked diligently to find new ways to dominateas he once did so easily. "He's the best passing center from the low postthat I've ever been around," says Miami coach Pat Riley. "Kareem wasgreat, but Shaq is a pinpoint passer, and we run a lot of our plays through himas a point center."
It is bothfascinating and sometimes hilarious to see the largest, oldest starting centerin the playoffs shock his opponents as Shaq did on the crucial play of lastFriday's Game 3, when he ventured out past the three-point line to strip athoroughly surprised Vince Carter off the dribble. Not only did Shaq--who isfamously poor at defending the pick-and-roll--dive on the loose ball duringMiami's decisive 13-2 fourth-quarter run, he then added a dash of slapstickwhen he elbowed Carter off his back with the nonchalance of a horse swattingaway a fly with his tail. "He dove on my head, and I hit my teeth on theground," explains O'Neal. "It was just one of my police reactions toget that criminal off me."
Shaq's career arcis not unlike that of Jimmy Connors, Jack Nicklaus or Nolan Ryan, all of whomwere disliked early in their careers for their effortless domination, butbeloved at the end when their performances became more uneven. Far moreendearing (and easier to relate to) than O'Neal's 30-point, 20-reboundmasterpiece in Game 6 of the opening round against the Bulls, for example, washis eight-point, four-board effort a week earlier. "There's never going tobe another guy like me," he says.
Indeed, theleague seems to be in a hurry to mitigate Shaq's physical advantages. Zonedefenses permit Collins, Nenad Krstic and even Jason Kidd to swarm O'Nealbefore he gets the ball, and throughout the playoffs he has been in foultrouble for misdemeanors that once went unwhistled. In his prime Shaq regularlywent crashing into the lane like a 340-pound bowling ball, opponents flying offhim like candlepins. With those same defenders now being rewarded for flopping,Shaq looks tentative at times, as if he's playing Nerfoop in a living roomcrowded with fine china. "They weren't calling nothing when I was purposely'bowing [Dikembe] Mutombo in his face," says Shaq wistfully, referring tothe tactics he used against the tight D of the 76ers' center during the Lakers'2001 Finals victory. "Phil [Jackson] said, 'If he's going to play likethat, put your f-----' elbow right in his face.' And they didn't call it."Oh, those were the days.
O'Neal insiststhat the league is making a big mistake by tilting the game in favor of theLilliputians. "The game is going to be boring," he says. "They'regoing to have a bunch of Dirk Nowitzkis shooting threes."
But that won't beShaq's problem. He's already plotting his next life. "I won't becommentating, sitting around criticizing players," he says. "You'llhear from me in a different realm. You'll be saying, 'Sheriff Shaq arrestedanother child molester' or 'Dr. Shaq has opened an office....'"
Hold on. DoctorShaq? "I'm working on my doctorate starting in June," he says."Psychology, with an emphasis on criminal justice." Dr. Phil, meet Dr.Shaq--and watch out for those elbows.
These playoffs have presented a new challenge for O'Neal, both in the paint andon his rare forays into the backcourt.