Big men can't hide. Stanley Roberts had almost forgotten this in his years of exile because for a time he had actually pulled it off, made himself vanish—poof!—in a cloud of obscurity so thick that even his arrests passed unnoticed. Every so often, a horny drunk at some strip club would squint at the massive bodyguard looming over him and say, "Hey, ain't you Stanley...?" But those humiliations never lasted long. When he wasn't protecting executives on their late-night trollings, Roberts would work out in a Houston gym frequented by NBA players, timing it so his path didn't cross theirs. He knew they didn't want to see him. When old teammates jetted into town, they'd call only when they wanted him to hook them up with women. "Just send the girl to the room," they'd say, "but you can't come up." He almost liked it. There's a certain clarity that comes from tasting dirt.
Still, this is worse than Roberts remembers: There was that weird vibe when the turnstile guard recognized him, then handed him a SHAQ'S BACK poster as if Roberts were yearning for a souvenir to tack above his bed. And now, an hour before tip-off, the Staples Center isn't filling as quickly as he'd like. There's not much a 7-foot, 345-pound black man with braided hair can do to make himself inconspicuous, but Roberts is trying: He slumps as far down as the seat allows, knees wedged against the row in front of him; he stares at the video screen above the court and the Lakers and the Bulls warming up below as if he'd never seen such a spectacle; he avoids eye contact with strangers. "I don't want anybody to recognize me," he says.
Actually, most everybody's attention is directed at the floor. On this November night Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal will play for the first time since last year's championship run, and the team's early-season plunge into last place has, as much as anything O'Neal achieved before his toe injury and off-season surgery, underscored his importance to the Lakers. Suddenly, nobody in town is backing Kobe Bryant in the long-running Kobe vs. Shaq debate. O'Neal has returned knowing he is needed, and loved, more than ever. The video monitor shows a minimovie of Shaq as Rocky, training for his comeback by running stairs, pounding a side of beef, and cracking open a raw egg on his head and drinking it. Everyone watches—relieved, rapt, laughing on cue. Shaq's back!
"Look at him," Roberts says, K2 eyeing Everest. "He's a mountain of man."
No, Roberts insists, he has never felt jealous watching his old LSU teammate, the player he once toyed with, the man who may well end up being considered the best center in NBA history. O'Neal is the league's lone superstar, a marketing machine with a Superman tattoo and a nickname any mom would love: Big Aristotle. Stanley Roberts? The man who, O'Neal says, "made me what I am today"? Roberts knows that people in the league regard him as a broken man, a waste of time and money. He tells you himself: His teammates on the Orlando Magic nicknamed him Big Garbage.
Like O'Neal, Roberts has written his story on his skin. A tattoo of Japanese characters climbs up his neck like a weed; troublesome, the characters say on one side, and on the other, outlaw. Roberts claps long and hard as Shaq walks onto the court for the first time. During the game he picks apart Shaq's every move with casual precision, sees himself. O'Neal misses a jumper, and Roberts says, "That was my shot, that turnaround."
Halftime. Roberts hits the concourse in search of Chinese food. People stare, people say, "Hey, Stanley!" He pauses to chat, and a half moon of fans gathers to listen, grinning. Roberts played for the Los Angeles Clippers from 1992 to '97, and he was beloved—as he had been earlier playing for the Magic and LSU—because he never said no. Now here comes Big Dave, the boxing promoter from San Diego who tonight is mostly promoting ring-card girls, judging by the two new candidates from Nebraska who accompany him. He and Roberts once shared a wild night in Vegas, and now the girls are posing with Roberts, cooing and smiling as their eyes scan the passing crowd. The camera clicks, Roberts edges away. A kid asks how tall he is; he answers politely. A man in blue waves him over, and Roberts slaps hands with him as if he were a very old friend. Roberts returns fingering a silver business card.
"See that guy?" he says. "A few years ago I got into business with him, signed a rough draft of a contract, and he sued me for $100,000—and won." He shakes his head in amazement and says, "You've got some real characters in this town."
He finds the Chinese food stand, downs a plate with the rest of the fans. He watches people rushing back to their seats for the third quarter, but he's in no hurry. Like most pro athletes Roberts gets bored watching games, but it's not only that. He's planning to make his own comeback in a month, though no one's going to hand out posters to celebrate that. The concourse grows quiet but for the muffled sound of the game. The Lakers are winning. It's better here.
"Yeah," Roberts says. "I was Mr. L.A. for a while."