PHOENIX – He still walks into the room with a wise crack and a wink, and it isn’t long until the residue is washed away – the missed games, the poor performances, the angry owners and coaches left in his wake. No one has ever been a bigger presence in the room because Shaq Diesel is the last true bigger-than-life character in the sport, the last original.
He sat in a media conference and tells a story about Dale Brown and John Wooden marching up to his hotel room and waking him up for a class. Wooden had wisdom for him. You stop and think and go: Wait, the Wizard of Westwood was in Baton Rouge, schlepping over to Shaq’s dorm to get him out of bed for his 10 o’clock English Comp class?
Ah, never mind. He was on a roll.
Shaq can tell people anything and they nod and believe him. Well, it’s Shaq, so maybe it’s possible. Anything is with him, right? He makes you laugh. He makes your team feel blessed. He sits there and holds up his fist and speaks of a fifth championship ring – a sixth, too – and everyone so desperately wants to believe him.
“I’m very upset,” Shaq said. And that’s the flimsy hope they’re holding tight to in the desert. Shaq is mad. “You just don’t really want to get me upset. When I’m upset, I’m known to do certain things…”
“…like win championships.”
Everyone’s eyes get wide when Shaq talks this way, when he starts flicking his ring finger and teasing this desert town on a 40-year championship drought. The Suns are clinging to the belief that Shaq is so angry over the league and public’s overwhelming condemnation of this trade that somehow he’ll go on a mission to validate that faith. Somehow, they still think Shaq has the free will to be his old self, to change basketball games. No one has seen it for years, but the Suns are banking the franchise on it re-appearing again.
Four years ago, the Miami Heat delivered him out of his blood war with Kobe Bryant. Shaq wasn’t in his best shape, but he stood up and promised a parade down Biscayne Boulevard. He’d win the Heat a championship. Pat Riley gave him a $100 million contract extension and Shaq professed his undying loyalty to him. Together, they hung the banner, though Dwyane Wade was mostly responsible.
So Thursday, Shaq, black suit and purple tie, had a chance to guarantee a title in the Valley of the Sun. He had talked big, but politely declined. He knows better. Guarantee a title? Shaq can’t guarantee that he’ll be on the floor in the playoffs. That’s the frightening part of it. The best Shaq can promise is that he’ll honor the wishes of the Suns doctors and come early and stay late for the rehab on his aching hip. The Suns have an idea on how to solve his problems, and insist they’ll make him as good as new.
That’s the pitch with Shaq here. That’s the sales job in the desert. They want everyone to forget the past two, three years in Miami and believe that he can come back to the Western Conference and take on Yao Ming and Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum. Here’s what you worry about the most: Riley gave him those five years, desperate to get a title within the first two, it happened and now someone else thinks they can ride out the rest of that deal.
Riley knew there would be a price to pay on the back end, but believed a championship was worth the albatross of Shaq’s $20 million-a-year salary-cap killer. Now, he’s come to the Suns, where they’re going to have to make serious system adjustments to make it work with him. Maybe Dallas, but the Suns are still the strangest of fits.
Yet, Shaq walks into the room and everything stops. Everyone gazes. He still talks like he’s Superman, indestructible and that his whim, his will, can overtake everything. For the good of the NBA, you wish it was true.
There’s still a sense that people don’t want to let go of the idea of Shaq. That’s happening in Phoenix now. When the trade was made on Wednesday, the initial reaction was: What? Shawn Marion for Shaq? Yet, they’re softening here. It’s isn’t surprising. GM Steve Kerr and coach Mike D’Antoni have laid out an articulate, reasoned case for the trade. Steve Nash has endorsed it. And soon, Shaq walks into the room, starts tossing out his laugh-lines and then gets going on indignation and anger as the fuel of his ferocity.
This is the Western Conference, and there are no more nights off like he had in Miami. These are big teams and big tests and long, rugged playoff series that’ll demand O’Neal to perform like he couldn’t do in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
All that uncertainty has been suspended in the Valley of the Sun, where Shaq gets a honeymoon until his rehab is done and he takes the floor in the next two weeks. Between now and then, Shaq will walk through US Airways Arena with a wink and a nod and wise-crack out of the side of his mouth. Everyone will be charmed and moved and so grateful O’Neal is lighting up the room.
Yes, Shaq’s the last original. So many of these young stars, they’re trying to be someone else. They come pre-packaged. They’re scripted. They take themselves so seriously. Michael Jordan taught them that trick and it makes them marketing millionaires. There’s still a humanity to Shaq, a touch, that makes him magical. Now, he comes selling a fistful of championship rings and championship salvation.
John Wooden awaking him in his dorm room? The Suns winning a title with him pulling this franchise through late June? Ah, never mind. Let him go. Shaq’s on a roll.