He hates floppers as much as he hates dirty players. He singles out Divac of the Sacramento Kings and Arvydas Sabonis, late of the Portland Trail Blazers, as the leading practitioners of that dubious art. "When you flop, that's just another message that you don't know how to play me," says O'Neal. "Stand up and take your medicine like a man."
Predictably, the NBA will not admit that O'Neal presents a conundrum; the league has tried to avoid singling out players in any discussion of whistle-blowing. Ed Rush, the league's director of officiating, points out that there have always been players who present a challenge to referees. Rush, a respected ref for 31 seasons who retired in 1997, remembers sitting in a New York City steak house and watching refereeing legends Norm Drucker and Mendy Rudolph move around salt and pepper shakers to illustrate the correct position to make calls involving Chamberlain.
Rush says that NBA referees spent much off-season time working on officiating post play, and as he puts it, " Shaq is the poster child" for that greater examination. One difference this season is that the slot official—the middle one in the three-man crew—will be asked to make more calls on low-post plays, the league having decided that the ref on the baseline is frequently blocked.
Three situations can be pinpointed as particularly troublesome in trying to whistle the ultimate power player. The first is when Shaq comes across the lane in preparation for setting up on the low block and seems to clear out an area, claiming it as his own—"rooting out" his defender, in NBA parlance. "That can get a little frustrating," says the San Antonio Spurs' Robinson. "I remember one time he just rolled me over and kept going. I said to the refs, 'If you're not going to let me stop him with my hands [the league outlawed hand checking in the post in 1999], how can you let him knock me over?"
The second is when Shaq receives the entry pass, tosses it back out, then moves closer to the hoop for the second entry pass. "When he passes the ball back out, the refs aren't really looking at him, at how he's reestablishing his space," says Bradley. "For a defender, it's very, very hard to get around anyone at that point—but particularly him."
Sacramento coach Rick Adelman concurs: "That's the one the referees let go way too much."
Number three occurs when Shaq, holding the ball, makes a quick pivot or simply turns to the basket and rams into his opponent's...what? Head? Shoulder? Jaw? "If you're guarding Shaquille, you try to lower your center of gravity," says NBC commentator Steve Jones, a former NBA guard. "So when Shaq comes across with his elbows, a player such as Dikembe has his face right there. If Shaq threw an elbow way out, you'd say it was an obvious foul. But it's within his offensive move, and that makes it difficult to officiate."
Bradley agrees. "One thing that's hard for Shaq to deal with—and I should know-is that his normal move will look high," he says. "He'll turn, clip somebody in the head with his elbow, and it'll be called. Happens to me, too. I say to the refs, 'Do you want me to play with my arms down at my sides?' You have to play close to Shaq, hang in there with him. But you also want to be able to smile when your career's over."
The glib (but accurate) assessment of these three situations is this: Sometimes Shaq is guilty, sometimes he's not. He's more often guilty, though, in the first situation than in the others. Shaq frequently runs over defenders when he comes across the lane to set up because, like all experienced players, he knows that refs are loath to call off-the-ball fouls. As for his talent at reestablishing, he is only doing what almost every other NBA player does, but with more size and skill. "You will never see me not use an angle," O'Neal says, and then he tells a reporter to stand behind him for a demonstration. (To the reporter, the effect is not unlike ducking into the shadow of a tall building.) "When I throw that ball back out, right away I put my foot where your foot is not," Shaq says, stepping over the defender's right foot and planting his own. "If I can get my foot there before you get yours there, I'm legal. Then I put the big ass on you, and son, you're done. I never back straight up into anyone. It's always an angle." We'll grant that he's more innocent than guilty in this situation.
Who's to blame when Shaq turns quickly and a defender ends up on his rump? According to Rush, "The offensive player is permitted to turn and make a natural basketball pivot." Makes sense. But what if the defender is so close that there's a lot of contact? "It's a bear of a call," says Rush. "It's dramatically easier to decipher incidental contact between guards and small forwards than it is between two big men. With big guys like Shaq the contact is so severe that even on a no-call somebody goes sprawling, usually the defender."