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As a personality, his is certainly secure. It can be easy to forget now, but O'Neal was the NBA for a long stretch during the post-Jordan and pre-Bryant years. And while Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were scowling, Shaq was always smiling. Sure, his movies may have been goofy and his rap albums indulgent, but he almost always exuded joy. Here was an enormous black man who effortlessly appealed to middle America. He instigated break-dancing contests (notoriously with James and Howard at the 2007 All-Star weekend—Google it, you won't be sorry), then stole the 2009 All-Star weekend by performing with the dance troupe Jabberwockeez during player introductions. And as serious as he seems with the Cavs, he actually remains just as silly. "You would never believe that he is 38, the way he is off the court," says James. "He's always laughing and joking and doing things that not even a 28-year-old—not even an 18-year-old—would do, because [Shaq] loves life."
At heart he has always been an entertainer, going back to childhood, when he'd perform skits for his younger siblings every Sunday morning while his parents slept in. "He has a kindness and sensitivity to other people that came from his grandmother," says his mother, Lucille. For years Shaq encouraged Lucille to write a memoir, and when Walk Like You Have Somewhere to Go was published this spring, he steadily supported her. "He's been so cool," says Curt Harding of Thomas Nelson Press, the book's publisher. "He has shown up at every book signing, and naturally everyone wants to interview him. So he just looks at her and says, 'Is that O.K., Mom?'"
No, nobody doubts how much the league will miss Shaq when he leaves it. But as beloved as he is as a person, he is a polarizing figure as a player. If you're ever in need of a good bar conversation, try posing this: If O'Neal had fulfilled his potential, how good could he have been? Lakers coach Phil Jackson once said of Shaq, "He's the one guy that didn't really like to work." But what if he had? What if he'd devoted himself to the game the way Bryant has, if he'd become a 70% foul shooter, if he'd developed even one face-up move in the post? Seriously, how many rings would he have won? Eight? Ten? Could he have averaged 40 and 20?
For a glimpse of what might have been, go to YouTube and search for his highlights at Cole High in San Antonio. There you will see a young, slim O'Neal running the floor with effortless grace, handling the ball on the fast break (!) and then swishing a soft jumper (!!). To watch the clip is to envision what might have been, a supersized hybrid of Hakeem Olajuwon and Julius Peppers. But of course O'Neal never became that player—and who's to say he would have been more effective if he had, for his sheer bulk was often his greatest asset. But the questions will forever follow him.
For years O'Neal scoffed at his critics or hid behind humor and outsized boasts. In 2002, during his heyday, this is how he rationalized his free-throw-shooting ineptitude to Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker: "Being the best is too easy for me. If I played the game I play and shot 88 percent from the line, it would take away from my mental focus, because I would know how good I was and I wouldn't work so hard." On other occasions, he's blamed failings upon—pick one—the refs, a leaguewide conspiracy, flopping big men, cowardly coaches who choose to foul him and, of course, Bryant. Which is to say, anyone but Shaquille O'Neal. This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, this is a man who sports a tattoo on his right arm that reads AGAINST THE LAW, because, as O'Neal told Mead, "It's against the law to be this talented, this beautiful, this smart, this sexy. I don't mean penal-code law. I mean laws of nature."
These days, however, O'Neal has gained some perspective and, dare we say it, even a touch of humility. Sitting on the couch at the practice facility, his voice low, he is candid about his weight gain: "I came in skinny, and [they said] you gotta lift weights, you gotta lift weights. So I lifted a whole bunch of weights, and I got big. Then I started winning, and then I started getting cute. So of course when you win and you're already muscular, you start eating the steaks and the burgers. I was just doing movies and doing albums. I was just young and so athletic and so good that I didn't really have to do much."
What's remarkable, of course, is how much he accomplished by not doing much. At this point O'Neal's career numbers are staggering: more than 28,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and $286 million in salary. And while some agree with Celtics coach Doc Rivers when he says, "No matter what he does the rest of his life on the basketball floor, his legacy is already cemented," O'Neal understands that this is not quite true. Consider: Were the Cavs to win a ring this season, not only would it be O'Neal's fifth, but he could also lay claim to being the man who brought a championship to the three greatest players of this generation: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Play another year or two, and he might also pass his hero, Wilt Chamberlain, whom he trails by 3,164 points for fourth place on the career scoring list. "If I can catch him, that'd be big," O'Neal says.
In a funny way, the result of all this is that this postseason is an audition of sorts for O'Neal. His contract with Cleveland is up after the season, and Ferry will only say, "We really enjoyed having Shaq here, but where we are right now is, Let's focus on this year."
There aren't many other options. Talk to executives around the league, and they mention the Mavericks' Mark Cuban as the type of owner who might take a chance on signing Shaq, but not many others. Says a Western executive, who, like many around the league, questions whether O'Neal would remain quite so deferential on a team without a star the caliber of James, "It has to be someone who is trying to get over the top but can handle his persona." Another G.M. pegs Shaq's value at "maybe two or three million," a far cry from the $20 million he's making this year. "The risk is that he's hard to control in the locker room, and his game is pretty much gone from what I've seen. But he can still be effective in the right situations."
That is all to come though. For now, O'Neal and the Cavs must worry about the Celtics before they can concern themselves with Howard or ring fittings or anything as grand as a legacy. So there was Shaq on Sunday in Game 4, looking both 48 (early, when he had his shot blocked and was called for three seconds) and 28 (midway, power dunk inside) and nonexistent. (Brown sat him for the whole fourth quarter.) It was a strange sight, this large, proud man squeezed onto the bench for all that time, elbows jammed in his lap as if stuck in the middle seat on a commuter flight, occasionally clapping, occasionally leaning forward anxiously to get a better view of the action. He no longer looked like a superhero, or a celebrity, or an invincible force. Rather, he looked like any other normal 38-year-old holding on, hoping the game had not passed him by.