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When the first nine players chosen for the 1999 U.S. Men's Senior National team (the group presumed to form the core of the 2000 Olympic team) were announced on March 10, there was one glaring omission: Shaquille O'Neal. This was not an oversight, nor was it a slight. USA Basketball—whose president happens to be Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner of the NBA-felt O'Neal could be excused from the long grind of playing in the qualifying rounds leading up to the Olympics. The unspoken message: Enjoy your summer, Shaq, and we'll save a spot for you on our Dream Team.
That is no longer necessary. O'Neal, frustrated by what he says is a lack of respect from the NBA's front office, told SI last Thursday that he will not play in the 2000 Sydney Games. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not going," said O'Neal. "They can find someone else. The NBA doesn't give me any respect. They say all the right things, but I won't believe them until they show me the same respect they show Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. Those guys can say whatever they want, and nothing happens to them. I say anything, and the league hits me with a fine.
"If they think they're going to stop me from voicing my opinion by fining me, they're mistaken. I'm not a materialistic person. You can't shut me up with the threat of taking my money."
The opinion O'Neal voices most vociferously is that he's getting hacked to death while refs look the other way. O'Neal, who is listed at 7'1" and 315 pounds, knows that all big men get abused on the blocks; he just wants a level playing field. "If they gave me every call I'm supposed to get, I'd average 60 points a night," O'Neal said. "I guess the NBA doesn't want me to average 60. I'm the only so-called superstar who gets absolutely no calls at home. One day someone is going to foul me, and I'm going to go crazy. It's going to happen-soon—because my [chronically injured] stomach muscles can't take much more."
O'Neal said several doctors have told him the strained abdominal and groin muscles are injuries he'll have to battle for the rest of his career, largely because of the stress he puts on those areas of his body when he goes up strong with two or three defenders along for the ride. Last season, after missing 21 games with an abdominal strain, he sought the opinion of three specialists. Two recommended surgery, and the third recommended physical therapist Alex McKechnie, who now works with O'Neal periodically throughout the season.
Granik has heard O'Neal's no-respect lament many times, yet he says it is disconcerting to hear the big fella is so upset that he's balking at making the trip to Australia next summer. "The last time I talked to Shaq about the Olympics was a year ago, and he indicated he was anxious to play? says Granik. "If he has changed his mind about playing, I can only hope he'll change his mind again before next summer."
O'Neal would be a huge asset to the U.S. team. Amid this chaotic Lakers season, he has been the one constant. He was averaging 27.2 points and 11.3 rebounds a game through Sunday and had exhibited the kind of leadership many of his doubters said he could never provide.
Among the issues O'Neal discussed in a wide-ranging interview was the Lakers' relationship with Dennis Rodman, who returned to the team on Sunday for a nationally televised game against Orlando. "I said from the beginning I wasn't going to be a babysitter," O'Neal said. "The first day Dennis didn't show up for practice, we were told he had personal problems. I left it at that. Then we hear he's here, he's there, he's in Las Vegas. So my job becomes keeping my guys focused on dealing with what we've got.
"I will say this about Dennis: He's a hard worker. I might not agree with what he does off the court, but our front office says give him space because he's got personal problems—whatever that means."