One thing is clear: In most cases O'Neal is not guilty of throwing elbows. "I was taught to keep my elbows right here," says Shaq, grasping a ball so that his upper arms form approximately a 40-degree angle with his rib cage. "You will never see me with my elbows out. They teach big men to protect the ball but not to swing the elbows. That's how I play. Now, if I turn and somebody's jaw is there," he says with a straight face, "well, that jaw is supposed to get broken."
Indeed, if some consider O'Neal borderline dirty, no one seems to think he's squarely on the dirty side. In fact, most opponents consider him among the cleanest players in the league, his physicality notwithstanding. "It's not about Shaq and the refs," says Charles Oakley, the Chicago Bulls' veteran power forward, referring to the constant whining by opposing centers. "It's about guys who guard Shaq having to check their own hearts."
Shaq's nearly impeccable on-court comportment certainly earns him points with the refs. "If most players were fouled the way Shaq gets fouled—hard fouls, hacking—they'd be ready to fight," Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders says, "but Shaq just takes it and goes to the free throw line."
O'Neal doesn't say much to the referees or talk much about them publicly. He does, however, have rather strong feelings about them. Last season Jackson was lecturing his team about the increased pressure they would face not only from opponents but also from officials. Then he solicited opinions about referees. "I think they cheat," answered Shaq quickly. Jackson pooh-poohed this notion, but O'Neal reiterated it. "Guys have a knee in my butt and they're leaning on me as hard as they can, and nothing gets called," he said. Shaq considers all those no-calls tantamount to "cheating" by the refs.
This remains O'Neal's essential complaint about refereeing: When he posts up, defenders use everything short of an earthmover to dislodge him from his rightful position, and a foul is rarely called. He stops short of using the c word, but his position is clear. "Coming from a military family," says Shaq, "I believe that whatever is written should be enforced. Don't come to training camp and tell me that a defender can use only one hand [a defender can use one forearm to 'protect and maintain position'], and then somebody uses both of them, and you don't call it. Don't tell me that a defender can't put a knee in my ass, and then when somebody does, not call it. Whistle it exactly how the rule is written."
It will be interesting to see if the way the new zone rules are written will have a big effect on Shaq. Mavericks assistant Sidney Moncrief thinks O'Neal will be more effective because his rebound putbacks will increase if teams zone the Lakers, while Saunders thinks he will grow more frustrated because double-teaming will limit his touches. O'Neal maintains that he is prepared for the latter prospect. "My scoring is going to go down, and the more I get doubled, the more I'll depend on my guys," he says.
The key point may have been made by Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins, who believes Shaq is the one player strong enough to go wherever he wants regardless of which players—or how many—are in his way. Shaq smiles at that. "One thing you have to remember is that I've used only 20 percent of my strength at the offensive end," he says. "I keep it to that because I never know how the game is going to be called. With the new rules, who knows? Maybe I'll up that a little."
As ridiculously low as that 20% figure seems, Bradley believes it. "Sometimes I look at him, and as much as people are getting moved around in there, I know he's not using all of his strength," says Bradley. "I have thought about what would happen if he did." And what would happen? "I'd rather not go there."