Shaquille O'Neal rises to his full 85 inches and extends a backside large enough to cover your average love seat. "See, I don't do this," he says, moving backward with little steps, leading with his butt, imitating an NBA center who shall remain nameless other than to say that Vlade Divac would be a good guess. Then he put his shoulder into a would-be defender and playfully knocked him back. "Are you telling me I that gotta knock over Shawn Bradley or David Robinson or anybody to make a basket?" says Shaq.
Well, uh, yes, Mr. O'Neal, some NBA observers say precisely that.
"I'll tell you this," continues Shaq, "it's going to be scary when I do start running people over because I have a lot of frustration to let go. I don't have a hit list or anything like that, but when I go after some people, I don't want to hear mouths running. Oh, why did Shaq do that? They're going to know why. I've been getting beat up for nine years, and maybe it's time to do some beating up."
Thus does the league's most irresistible force, as well as its most immovable object, elucidate his view of the unusual maelstrom of activity that seems to result whenever he gets the ball near the basket. Shaq's take: I'm getting killed under there. Others who prefer to remain nameless—possibly to stay off any list the 29-year-old O'Neal might one day draw up—believe that Shaq inflicts most of the damage, that he is "borderline dirty" (one Western Conference assistant coach) and that "as long as the refs won't blow the whistle, he can get away with anything in there" (one Western Conference player).
The question is this: Has the Los Angeles Lakers superstar become unrefereeable? Most NBA observers, even those who speak off the record, fall somewhere in the middle of the great debate—does he always foul or always get fouled?—believing that he is an extremely physical player who doles out punishment proportional to the punishment he receives. They concede that the singular combination of O'Neal's size, strength, nimble-footed quickness and ever developing skills has made it extremely difficult for even the best officials to whistle his game fairly.
By the end of last season's Finals, during which the Philadelphia 76ers' 7'2", 261-pound Dikembe Mutombo draped himself like a poncho over O'Neal, it was hard to recall a play near the basket that hadn't resembled a WWF cage fight. Sixers supporters thought O'Neal was playing bully; Lakers people thought Mutombo was to blame; neutral observers figured that the referees simply couldn't figure out who was initiating the mayhem.
The NBA, of course, has long had to contend with big men who seemingly threatened to overwhelm the game. Those men were different from O'Neal, however. In the 1950s George Mikan was a gentle giant who preferred a lefty or righty hook shot, often banked off the board. Wilt Chamberlain in the '60s was O'Neal's equal as a physical specimen—he may even have been more commanding because his opponents weren't exactly sculpting themselves in the weight room—but he preferred to show that he was made of finer stuff, often launching a fadeaway one-hander that left him 15 or 20 feet from the basket. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the '70s was a finesse player, a tactician who made 20 skyhooks for every rim-rattling dunk.
O'Neal? He likes it down low and low-down. Yes, his body control is phenomenal for a man of his size (340 pounds), and, yes, his ball handling is so adroit that Lakers coach Phil Jackson doesn't mind when he leads the fast break. Nonetheless, in the half-court game he invariably winds up near the basket, forever trying to get nearer, an eight-foot jump hook his version of a perimeter shot. He plays within a confined space, which becomes all the more crowded because of his size. "There are other huge people in the league," says the Dallas Mavericks' Bradley, who at 7'6" is five inches taller than Shaq but about 100 pounds lighter, "but nobody feels like Shaq. And nobody that size is nearly as quick or can jump like that."
Adds Jackson, "He's a very hard guy to referee. Around Shaquille, it seems to be a very physical game." Gee, you think?
O'Neal differentiates between players who guard him tough and players who guard him dirty. In the first category he puts, in no particular order, the old warriors of the post: Mutombo, Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing and Hakeen Olajuwon. He will not list the players he considers dirty other than to say that "most of them are forwards who come on the double-team to get me." He is not shy, however, about saying which players guard him without bending or breaking the rules. "Nobody," he says. Well, how about if you had to name someone? "I couldn't," he says. "I'm too big and too strong and too skillful for anyone to stop me."