The man-child was not happy. He couldn't sleep, and he couldn't stop his mind from racing. It was heading toward dawn, a night in February. And there he was, sitting alone in his $5.5 million mansion on the whispery shore of Lake Butler, outside Orlando. He was contemplating his unique place in the world, feeling restless clear through to his heart.
One question he kept asking was this: "Do I swerve?"
He tried to be square with himself, to come clean with the truth. If he did swerve, he was fully prepared to deal with that reality. But the answer he kept hearing was: "No, bro, you don't. You don't swerve at all."
It was an off night for the Orlando Magic, and Shaquille O'Neal had gone with friends to a club outside of town. Since O'Neal doesn't drink ("Can't even tolerate the smell of table wine," one of his teammates, Dennis Scott, likes to say), he mostly sat around, listening to music and absorbing the bright, energetic scene. As he was starting for home sometime after midnight, he glanced in his rearview mirror and spotted a police car coming fast on his tail. O'Neal slowed for the car to pass, but then its lights came on, coloring everything.
O'Neal pulled over and fished around for his wallet, although giving the man a driver's license or any other I.D. hardly seemed necessary. Mickey Mouse notwithstanding, Shaquille O'Neal is the biggest name that this central Florida city of 1.4 million has ever known. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year for 1992-93, and this winter he was named a starter in the league's All-Star Game for the second straight season. O'Neal's 22nd birthday was still a month away, but everybody was saying that he was a cinch to claim Michael Jordan's place as the most popular sports personality in all America.
Basketball, however, wasn't the only pursuit in which O'Neal had distinguished himself. His debut album, a rap collection called Shaq Diesel, was on the verge of going platinum, with sales of a million copies. He was also an aspiring movie actor, and in his first major role, in Blue Chips, he shared the screen with Nick Nolte and won a modicum of praise from film critics. If all that wasn't enough, huge companies such as Pepsi and Reebok had already invested millions of dollars in pitching O'Neal's bigger-than-life persona to the world.
There were a couple of numbers people tended to quote when O'Neal's name came up: his scoring average of 28.9 points per game, second in the league after David Robinson's 29.2, and the $100 million O'Neal was expected to earn by his 25th birthday.
Everybody knew him. Or so it seemed until this night.
"Do you drink?" the policeman asked, first thing.
O'Neal looked closely and seemed to recognize the man. Sure enough, it was the same fellow who'd stopped him here once before. "No, officer," O'Neal replied after a time, "I don't."