Good vibes abound in what might be Shaq's All-Star Game farewell
Old teammates share MVP honors and bury their differences from the past
All-Star Game became a big, happy tribute to the aging Shaquille O'Neal
After perhaps his final All-Star appearance, Shaq takes home the trophy
PHOENIX -- "If I hear one more guy start a sentence with, 'In this economy ...'" complained a team executive as we drank beer in a dive bar Friday before a fight broke out among the locals.
It was a place that was supposed to mimic an English pub, especially if you've never been to England or you've never spoken English. The fight started at one of the pool tables and worked its way across the floor to the opposite wall, where one man slammed another up against a Bud Light poster whilst (as they say in English pubs) a shrieking woman rained blows upon his head.
People are going to lose their tempers from time to time, especially in this economy.
Here were some of the most exciting things I saw this All-Star Weekend.
1. The bar fight.
3. The pregame dance performed by Shaq behind a white mask in the company of the JabbaWockeeZ. "A-plus on the dance floor,'' said Kobe Bryant, who scored 27 points and shared the All-Star MVP award with Shaq and was sharing a press conference stage with him now.
"I appreciate that,'' answered Shaq, who added 17 points.
"That size, moving and all that,'' said Bryant. "He didn't show you the windmill, though.''
"Can't,'' said Shaq, who turns 37 next month.
4. The two chin-ups Shaq performed while hanging on the rim after a third-quarter dunk.
5. The give-and-go pass that Shaq bounced through Dwight Howard's legs on his way to a dunk from Bryant.
6. Shaq's no-look courtlength outlet to Tony Parker.
7. The attempt by 7-1 Shaq to guard 6-1 Mo Williams at the three-point line.
The point here being that the game didn't mean much of anything for the 37 minutes when Shaq wasn't playing. Of course it got off to a start that was entertaining enough, between Tim Duncan whistling through his teeth at the ferocity of a Howard dunk, and Mr. and Mrs. John McCain clapping in exaggerated support of Eva Longoria as they sat courtside while cheering every basket by Tony Parker. But then O'Neal arrived 6:16 into the opening quarter, and the whole game elevated as if he was standing upon the other end of the scale.
In turn, when he wasn't in the game, it sank.
Shaq used his first touch to pass the ball back out to Kobe. He returned the gesture by lobbing to Shaq, who dunked and dangled comically from the rim while its reinforced steel appeared to wilt like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
When they ran the pick and roll it was like a reunion of the Star Trek characters in their first movie, like The Police coming back together despite their personality differences. For Shaq and Kobe, there was no room for argument any longer, especially in this economy.
It is a simple truth that success can bring out the worst in people. When times were good across our great land, Shaq and Kobe could afford to fight and divorce in their argument over how to split the riches of their marriage. Now that times are bad, they -- and their league -- need for them to get along. That's why it was arranged that they would be co-MVPs.
Let's be honest. Does anyone really think the MVP vote was split evenly, that Shaq and Kobe received exactly the same number of ballots between them? (For that matter, can anybody believe that the slam-dunk contest Saturday wasn't rigged for Nate Robinson and Howard to meet in the final? Come now: Special shoes had been manufactured for them, and a phone booth had been installed for Howard to disappear into and a specially assembled 12-foot basket had been prepared for him to dunk on -- and Rudy Fernandez was supposed to believe he had any chance of displacing either one of them?) But the vote was surely close between Shaq and Kobe and no harm was done because it was the right call all around. In an economy like this, feel-good stories are especially valuable.
Now some people are going to make more of it than it was. They're going to wax romantically on what Shaq and Kobe could have been had their temper been more playful and less competitive. But they're going to be making too much of a night at the theater.
A closer version of the truth emerged at the press conference they shared afterwards.
Shaq: "It felt like old times. I miss those times. He was really looking for me, especially when we went to a pick-and-roll and they had Rashard Lewis on me. He was really looking for me.''
Kobe: "We are not going to go back to the room and watch Steel Magnolias or something like that. You know what I'm saying, crying all that stuff. We had a good time. That's all.''
One big difference between them now is that Shaq is a natural salesman who believes in selling. Kobe believes the performance should sell itself, and very often, in his case, it does.
The point of this evening wasn't so much a NBAish reunion of Lennon and McCartney. What it turned into was a big, happy tribute to Shaq, who played only 11 minutes yet was the biggest person in the room. Even during timeouts he took over by singing love songs and Caribbean Queen on the jumbotron.
"The game don't look back on a lot of players that come through the league,'' said LeBron James. "But Shaq is definitely one of those guys you always look back on and wish he was still around.''
When commissioner David Stern handed them the single MVP trophy, Shaq made a show of trying to grab it out of Kobe's hands. At the press conference afterwards it sat upon the table equidistant between them.
"Kobe is the best player in the league,'' said Shaq in a hoarse whisper. "So A-plus on that side. And A-plus for being a great guy. He even let me take the trophy home for my boys, so I appreciate him for that. He said I could have it.''
Shaq is approaching the end of his career, and he talked about wanting to make the most of what may be his final All-Star game. But Kobe is 30, with one less NBA championship than the four won by Shaq, and he has a different outlook altogether.
"We got a tough week coming up,'' Bryant said. "We got Atlanta, going back-to-back up against Golden State, which is always tough. As soon as I leave this podium, it is time to get back down to business.''
His face was drawn tight, looking ahead. Shaq's was relaxed in a grin, looking back. The NBA needs both, especially in this economy.