Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thankfully, I avoided stepping on Shaq's toe

In what seems a lifetime ago, I covered the 1993 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City for AP. Looking back, two things stand out:

1. A few other sportswriters and I went out for lunch the day of the game. It started snowing lightly as we got out of the cab and entered the restaurant. About an hour later, there had to have been a foot and a half of snow on the ground. It was the biggest, fastest blizzard I ever had seen. And that's saying something, because I lived in Minnesota for almost 10 years.

2. My game assignment was to write about Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA's rookie sensation. I can't remember what I wrote, but I do remember getting into the locker room as quickly as possible after the game and planting myself next to Shaq's locker. Even back then, he was a notorious quiet-talker, so I knew the microphone on my tape recorder wouldn't pick up a thing he said if I didn't stand thisclose. He came out of the shower and sat down on his chair, and his huge left foot literally was an inch from my right shoe. I was barely listening to what he said because all I kept thinking was, "Mike, you clod, don't step on one of this guy's toes!"

Shaq was neither the best center I ever covered (that would have been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) nor the largest human I ever saw (the Jazz had a center named Mark Eaton, whose head was roughly the size of a Yugo). But he was close in both categories.

The super-athletic O'Neal was the fourth-best center in basketball history, behind only Kareem, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. I used to get a kick out of when his critics would say, "All he can do is dunk." To which I'd respond: "Yeah, 15 or 20 times a game."

His biggest failing was his horrific free-throw shooting. He used to claim he made them all the time in practice. That cracked me up, because it meant he was admitting he was a choker who couldn't handle game pressure. In reality, Shaq was a damn good big-game performer. Still, he needed a great facilitator -- Kobe Bryant in L.A., Dwyane Wade in Miami -- to win his titles.

One thing for sure: Shaq was a wonderful character who marketed himself brilliantly and turned himself into an international brand. Sure, his movies sucked. But he made seven more of them -- and got paid handsomely for seven more of them -- than you or I did.

Sports needs more characters not fewer. Shaquille O'Neal will be missed.

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