The Big Disappointment: Shaq not keeping it real in feud with Kobe
Just when you figured it was time to focus on a kinder, gentler NBA -- from a draft full of young guys who haven't yet misled or disappointed a soul (other than the college coaches and programs they're leaving prematurely) to a league spared at least for a few weeks from conspiracy theories and referee allegations -- someone had to go and hand Shaquille O'Neal a live microphone.
Might as well have been a live grenade.
Kobe Bryant, when this week began, still was soothing psychic wounds inflicted by the Celtics' 39-point pasting of his Lakers team in the Game 6 clincher of the NBA Finals. It was an inglorious finish to what had been a terrific regular season and an impressive playoff run for Bryant and his team, at least through the Western Conference championship. He was looking forward, too, to his first Olympics later this summer in Beijing.
Then O'Neal took the stage at a New York nightclub Sunday night for an impromptu set of freestyle rap that degenerated into an episode of Imus In The Morning.
Minus the bleeps that were dubbed in later, Shaq gave a musically dubious and verbally noxious beatdown of his former Lakers teammate. O'Neal -- beaming throughout, which we know because footage of the performance was posted on the celeb-snaring TMZ.com site -- ridiculed and mocked Bryant for the Lakers' dismal exit from the Finals and for his ex-sidekick's inability to win a ring without him. As in: "Check it, you know how I be, last week Kobe couldn't do without me.''
O'Neal had zingers for Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his free verse and, several vulgarities later, even blamed Bryant for precipitating the big man's marital discord by ratting out O'Neal back in 2003. That was when Bryant, facing a rape allegation, claimed to authorities that O'Neal paid $1 million to various women to cover up extramarital indiscretions.
At which point, in O'Neal's freestylin', we learned that Shaq had undergone a vasectomy, pushing the whole sordid episode into the Way Too Much Information Department.
Can we go out on a limb here and suggest that, maybe, these two guys don't much like each other?
For all the talk about how the 2008 Finals renewed basketball's greatest rivalry, that stuff still is gathering dust in the archives compared to the vitriol, bitterness, enmity and open competition between O'Neal and Bryant. It surpasses Celtics- Lakers, Pistons-Bulls and Suns-Spurs, by far, and trumps the other great individual clashes, both clean and nasty, in NBA annals, including Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan vs. Jerry Krause, Jason Kidd vs. Jamal Mashburn vs. Jim Jackson and even Dennis Rodman vs. Social Mores & Public Decorum.
Not that any of this is news. The Bryant-O'Neal schism undermined the Lakers right out of the 2004 Finals against Detroit and, in turn, O'Neal right out of Los Angeles a month later. Their sniping from afar during O'Neal's stint in Miami -- in which Bryant lacked both the volume and the jocularity needed to keep up with O'Neal's jabs -- gave way to occasional hugs and niceties for the cameras and the reporters in the four years since. But any sense that either man fully had grown up and put aside such foolishness, with Bryant fast approaching age 30 and O'Neal six fat years beyond it, ended with the latter's stage effort Sunday. (And while Bryant seems like the injured party here, let's remember that he did essentially the same thing on the radio-show and cell phone-video circuit last summer, kvetching about the quality of his teammates and the competence of the Lakers' front office.)
In O'Neal's explanation Monday, he went for the spin. "I was freestyling. That's all,'' he told ESPN.com. "It was all done in fun. Nothing serious whatsoever. That is what MC's do. They freestyle when called upon. I'm totally cool with Kobe. No issue at all. ... Please tell everybody don't make something out of nothing.''
See, just kidding. Having a laugh. Which makes O'Neal, at the moment, The Big Disappointment. If patriotism, as Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain saw it, was the last refuge of scoundrels, and online anonymity is the last refuge of modern weasels, taking shots at someone and then hiding behind a Kevlar cloak of jest is the new last refuge of cowards. It's a back door that excuses almost any words or behavior and then, in a final despicable stroke, points one last finger at the intended target for not having a sense of humor, not "getting it.''
Radio host Don Imus has made a shock-jock career of it, following up the Rutgers' basketball slur that cost him a job and nearly his career with asinine asides Monday about NFL migraine Adam Jones. Pestering on-air partner Warner Wolf during some comments about Jones' contract with the Cowboys, Imus wanted to know, "What color is he?'' Told that Jones is African-American, Imus replied, "Well, there you go, now we know.''
In this case, actually, Imus veered from his predictable "satire'' defense, the excuse he gave for his "nappy-headed hos'' nonsense last year. He now hides behind a "social criticism'' defense, claiming that he was defending Jones against racists cops who keep arresting him. Which, let's face it, might be more reprehensible -- aligning himself against the police and with a recidivist who has been nabbed six times since he was drafted by Tennessee in 2005 -- than the stereotyping of which Imus initially was accused.
Look, we all know it's a "Gotcha!'' culture these days. One minute, someone famous is saying or doing something stupid -- Alec Baldwin ranting about his custody squabbles on an answering machine, Sharon Stone blathering about an earthquake as karma for Tibet -- and the next minute it's on YouTube or TMZ.com or E! Sometimes it spills into the sports world, too, from a Web site sports columnist tossing Hitler's name into a cheeky line about Celtics fans to former Mets manager Willie Randolph's desperate claim that negative treatment by his own team's TV network was due to race. Some might say that this column -- a reaction to the reaction to the Shaq-Kobe kerfuffle -- is just tabloid antics once removed. Some might be right.
We're all so quick to be offended and all so quick to retreat from or rationalize away our stupid remarks. That's why I would have more respect for O'Neal and Bryant if they just let their bone-deep dislike fester out in the open. Stir it up before, during and after the four meetings next season between the Lakers and O'Neal's Suns. Stop pretending that, deep down, they have any bond or anything in common besides the three rings they needed each other to win in L.A. Keep it real, gentlemen. It is what it is, and it sure isn't comedy.