INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It comes to you the way puberty, love or the meaning of life came to you. One day you finally realize we're all living in ShaqWorld. Here, Shaq is playing your game, gulping your soft drinks, surfing your Net. He's on your sneakers, in your CD player and on your screens, big and small. Man, you slapped a little something into your Nintendo the other day, and you could have sworn he was there, too.
Say, is that Shaq next to you in bed? Pop in a videotape and first thing you see is him and that tilted smile of his, eyebrows flexed, as if to say, "Ah, thanks, bro," as he's taking your money. Next thing you know, he's ripping a rim, dropping a verse, waxing on, getting off.
He's Shaq-nipotent. Let's see, there's Shaq Diesel, Shaq-fu, Shaq Attaq or whatever Shaq derivative he's using these days. There's also Shaq Daddy, Shaq the daddy, hack-a-Shaq, Shaq the hack, Shaq and flak, Shaq is whack, and, many believe, Shaq the slack.
On that last thing, let's keep it real. Shaquille O'Neal is 24/7???. He is beyond multimedia. He's sight, sound, and flesh and bones. That's his biggest trick, see. His Dieselness is real. Not just a cartoon character. Or actor. Or M.C..
You just don't get it, do you?
That's what we thought.
These are confusing times, after all. You can't even believe your own eyes anymore, what with digitally enhanced photography and all. So, yes, you are forgiven for wondering whether one man - even a man as big, talented and ubiquitous as Shaq - can act, record, film commercials, do television, write books and have time to be the best he can be on a basketball court.
Shoot, sometimes it seems like Shaq is a better show off the court than he is on one. Sometimes it seems he's not committed enough to basketball to live up to his own hype.
"My game has gotten better every year," Shaq says. "I know people don't believe it. I knew when I started crossing over into other things that people were going to talk about me. But there's a golden rule in the crossover business - the market that you dominated has to stay tight.
"Gheorghe Muresan," Shaq continues, mentioning the Washington Wizard center and "My Giant" co-star. "He broke that rule. He got hurt. I'm not breaking that rule. My basketball is staying tight.
"I don't shoot movies or make records during the basketball season. During the offseason, I work out three to four hours a day. Then I have the rest of the day to myself. That's a lot of time. If I do a movie, I put it in my contract that I don't start shooting until 1 p.m. I wake up at 9 every morning and get my workout in.
"People don't think about that stuff. Nobody ever asks."
It's easier - no, check that, more enjoyable - to just make assumptions. People think that the guy is so big (7 feet 1, 315 pounds) and so athletic, he should just be killing people. Which he does, by the way. Shaq's never not made the All-Star Game and averages more than 27 points a game over his career. And he does so against masses of humanity that more resemble pig piles than NBA defenses.
Which leads us to the yes-buts. Yes, but the ring's the thing, and Shaq has none. Yes, but after shelling out $120 million for him, the Los Angeles Lakers have won as many Pacific Division titles as His Dieselness has won Oscars or Grammys. Yes, but he can't shoot free throws.
Shaq would love to tell you to kiss his yes-but. He usually holds his tongue. Even on nights after playing the likes of the Phoenix Suns, who like everyone else in the NBA play O'Neal like Lilliputians trying to take down Gulliver. Afterward, Shaq limps back to his locker-room stall, prompting someone to ask why he is half-stepping.
"Because I get beat up so much," he replies.
A reporter with unfortunate timing asks Shaq about the rash of injuries that have befallen so many league stars. O'Neal missed a large chunk of this season with an abdominal strain, after missing a hunk of last season with a knee injury.
"Just freak injuries," he says.
Pressed on the subject, he adds, "When you're a freak, freaky things happen to you."
Shaq's face lights like the Vegas strip. He makes the transition from grump to goof faster than most. The goof appears to be his favorite self. It's part of his charm. It's why though most sportswriters scurry to make deadlines, some invariably hang to continue shooting the Shaq. One of them this night is Kelly Carter of USA Today. During the 1995 NBA Finals, Carter had the gumption in the middle of a mass interview to admonish O'Neal "to quit mumbling." Shaq took a liking to her manner.
Carter stoops to investigate a Shaq shoe. It's a black suede loafer emblazoned in gold with the ornate Versace emblem. A size 22, it's also about the size of a lifeboat on the Titanic.
"What do you think?" Shaq asks. "Be honest."
"Well," Carter says, "they're big."
"I'm big," Shaq responds.
This is the irrefutable, unmistakable fact about Shaquille O'Neal. Everything about him is big. His presence. His contract. His outlook.
Even Laker teammate Robert Horry admits, "You just look at him sometimes and think, `God, he's big.' "
His bigness says everything, and nothing, about Shaq. It is at once his curse and his blessing. Shaq is large in the entertainment world in part because he is big. People are fascinated with size. But because they see more of Shaq, they tend to want more from him. Especially in basketball, where size really used to matter.
Shaq, still young at 26, did much to raise expectations by leading the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals after only his third season. He has won the imprimatur of the league, which parades him frequently before national television audiences and markets him globally. However, "He Ain't Won Nothing" isn't the title of his latest CD; it's been the refrain taken up particularly after he was the youngest player named as one of the NBA's 50 all-time best. His ubiquity off the court only reinforces the notion that he isn't ever going to win anything, either.
Over the past nine years, the only team to win a championship with a dominant center was Houston, which won with Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 and 1995 (aka, the Jordan Baseball Years). There are many who will say that Michael Jordan's career skews interpretation of that trend, but clearly basketball has become a game driven more from the wings than from the post.
Still, even those who have helped make the big man disappear would, given a choice, build their teams around one. Seattle's George Karl, the General Patton of gang-up warfare, says he'd start a team from scratch with Shaq in the middle.
Danny Ainge, the architect of SmurfBall in Phoenix, says of Shaq, "He is the most unstoppable force in the game."
No one so much stops Shaq as they try to wear him thin, the way a blacksmith might a piece of steel. He is not just Ezell's chicken big - 's amazingly quick for someone so big and strong. One man isn't enough to push him away from the rim or stop him from bulling his way to it.
"No doubt he gets beat up," Seattle's Sam Perkins says. "That's what he gets for being so damn big. . . . Everyone jumps on him like it's Jurassic Park. You have to get on and ride."
But the only place Shaq truly is humbled as a player is at the free-throw line. Opponents would rather foul him than allow him to destroy them inside. O'Neal calls the stratagem "hack-a-Shaq," though tackle-Shaq might be more appropriate.
There's a scene in Shaq's latest movie, "Steel," where the hero, Henry Irons, is trapped in a room with his youthful companion and a live grenade. To save them, Irons must flick the grenade through a hole. It is a tense moment that plays out time and time again in real life. There, the metaphoric hole is a basket and the live grenade a foul shot with a game on the line. The free throw seems almost to have a kryptonit effect on the center who has "Man of Steel" tattooed on his left biceps. This is the fifth straight season his percentage from the field was higher than from the foul line. The only exception was his rookie year.
"He doesn't shoot free throws well, and often that's your best defense," says Knick center Terry Cummings, a former Sonic. "So we have to take advantage of the fact that there are things he doesn't do well. . . . He is what he is. He's the biggest boy in the park right now."
The foul line has become a rallying point for the anti-Shaqs. "If I'm going to pay someone $120 million, I better be sure I can pass him the ball in the last thirty seconds," Charles Barkley sniped earlier this season.
But Shaq's free-throwing is more than a mere giant's vulnerability. It has become the overriding symbol of the very sloth and inattention to his game that the critics contend. You know, if he's shooting movies, he must not be shooting free throws. If he wants to rap, he must take the rap.
Phooey, Shaq says. Or something to that effect. Fact is, Shaq does practice free throws every day, more than just about any other Laker. But he's too big, or an old wrist injury prevents him from imparting proper spin or yadda-yadda-yadda. Laker Coach Del Harris gets mail about it all the time. Shaq free-throw theories abound. Phoenix forward Dennis Scott says that once his close friend masters the free throw, Shaq will become the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to average 50 points a game. Shaq doesn't disagree.
"It is a puzzle, but I will solve it," he declares.
Or Jerry West will have to solve it for him before the Laker boss retires. No matter the consequences, the ball will, should, must be in Shaq's hands. His salary demands it, as does his talent. The trick is getting the ball to Shaq in such a way that he operates against single coverage or sloppy doubles, he is too close to be stopped, or an entire team fouls out trying to hack-a-Shaq to victory.
The Houston Rocket title teams perfected the art with Olajuwon, surrounding him with shooters that sucked defenders away from the post.
"When we scouted or were looking for players, the first question we'd ask was whether the guy could shoot from the outside," Rocket Coach Rudy Tomjanovich says. "You just have to have people who can make defenses pay."
The Lakers have players who can make defenses pay, but not in the manner Tomjanovich suggests. The Lakers are a team with dual - and often dueling - personalities. They are the team of Kobe Bryant, which likes to run and attack the rim off the dribble and Shaq becomes just as big an obstacle as opposing defenses. Then they are the team of Shaq, one that gets locked onto forcing the ball into the post, rather than working it there through ball or player motion.
Shaq says the Magic team that advanced to the 1995 Finals worked because his inside presence was augmented by perimeter pop from the likes of Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, Horace Grant and Brian Shaw. Still, Shaq won't say if his heart went pitty-pat over the rumored Mitch Richmond-for-Eddie-Jones swap because he didn't believe it was going to happen.
At least, Jerry West never said it was going to. And West is the smartest man in basketball. You know it, we know it and, most of all, Shaq knows it. West is why Shaq went to Los Angeles, not Disneyland or Hollywood or any proximity to the crossover entertainment businesses. Shaq's daddy always used to say people will find talent and Shaq says, "They found me in Orlando." West among them.
"Jerry West is like Big Brother; he sees all," Shaq says. "He played the game. He dominated. Jerry West knows basketball. He knows all. That's why the NBA logo is him.
"Jerry West will figure it out. I have a lot more stuff I can do. Once I get me some Rex Chapmans and Dennis Scotts on this team, I'll start doing them."
Meanwhile, Laker games will continue to resemble an afternoon at the steel mill. Clang, clang, clang - the sound of Shaq's free throws, as well as the pounding he will take. Maybe one day, out of frustration, he'll hit back. "It'll be ugly," he says.
It'll be something, though not necessarily ugly. On the first day of this season, the Shaq Attaq came in the form of an open-handed slapping of Utah's Greg Ostertag. There'd been residual wolfing from the previous spring's second-round playoff series, though comedian Chris Rock later reckoned that Ostertag provoked the Shaq-fuing by asking O'Neal to refund the rental fee for "Kazaam."
And this is where his critics are wrong: Shaq's art cannot possibly compete with real life, particularly when the life is as real as Shaq's.
O'Neal's appeal is as obvious as the man himself. He casts a far more accessible image than previous Laker giants. Chamberlain was monstrous, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar full of brooding indifference. You can, however, look at Shaq and see him for what he is - just one big kid. His on-court playfulness has an air of sincerity lacking in, say, the bizarre, calculated behavior of a Shawn Kemp.
That is the crux of Shaq's appeal. His core following doesn't care if he's won championships or can't shoot free throws. His size gets their attention, then his warmth ropes them in. They are kids, for the most part, and kids are tough to fool in this manner.
Shaq has a generous nature, revealed mostly to those closest to him. Scott recounted O'Neal picking up dinner tabs for the entire Magic team or, during a mall cruise, dragging teammates into an audio store and buying them all portable CD players. Shaq recently purchased a pickup truck for Rudy Garciduenas, the Laker equipment manager. In tribute, Garciduenas outfitted his new rig with the personalized plate,"THXSHAQ."
"You can't teach what's in his heart," Scott says.
Because his personality translates so well, getting to know Shaquille O'Neal requires only an open mind and about $18. The latter covers the cost of "Shaq Diesel," his debut CD that went platinum, and the rental fee for "Steel," the most Shaq-like of his three film efforts. Shaq, who admits he's a "wannabe actor," says he'll appear only in children's or action-hero films and, in the latter, play only good guys. As a rapper, Shaq says he sits at the end of the spectrum with Will Smith and Heavy D, and stays clear of curse words or subject matter inappropriate for children.
Shaq takes his rapping seriously. He writes his own rhymes, claiming a vault of material awaiting release. He operates his own label, TWIsM (The World Is Mine), which recently partnered with A & M Records for marketing and distribution. His works already have attracted such prominent guest stars as the Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Rakim, KRS-One and members of the ubiquitous Wu-Tang Clan.
"Rapping a basketball comes from the same place," Shaq says. "On the court, I'd practice the moves of my favorite players. On the way to the court, I'd be mimicking my favorite rap artists. Sometimes I wanted to be Dr. J, other times I wanted to be LL Cool J."
His big break in the latter regard came in 1993, during an appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show." Shaq told Hall he wanted to do something different and ended up rapping with Fu-Schnickens, another guest on the show. Jive Records caught the performance and offered Shaq a two-record deal. Shaq's film career started similarly, he says, with a call out of the blue from Paramount Pictures.
"It's all been luck," Shaq says. "I never sat down and said, `I want to do this, I want to do that.' "
At Los Angeles Southwest College, Shaq is happening in the school pool, a large, submerged, black and blurry object. Like a submarine, only Diesel powered, of course. A one-legged guy who says "Everyone calls me One Leg" is poolside, watching intently. When Shaq surfaces, One Leg says he'd sure love a pair of Laker workout shorts for swimming. Without hesitation, Shaq peels off his, hands them to One Leg and starts rumbling to the showers, leaving torrents of chlorinated water in his wake.
Before reaching the door, Shaq stops, raises his hands and bellows, "I do it all! I swim, play basketball, rap, shoot movies . . ."
He can't help himself. The tilted grin has claimed his face.
A little later, Shaquille O'Neal is all serious. People say he isn't this, he isn't that. Shaq listens and shakes his head in acknowledgment. Yes, but, he says. Yes, but I can be, he says.
"I really can't be broken," Shaq says. "Things people say can't hurt my feelings. I just wanted an opportunity to play in the NBA. And I made it. I'm happy. My daughter looks at my face and says, `Daddy.'
"I have everything I want."
You can't deny it. This really is his world. There's Shaq-boo, daughter Taahira, nearly 2. Her presence guarantees it will stay a kid-friendly place. Mostly, it is a place of possibilities. In ShaqWorld, you can be what you want to be. A rapper? An actor? A basketball star? Go ahead, try it all. You'll have company. The biggest kid in ShaqWorld is just getting started.