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
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
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."
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."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. HOLD ON NOW The guy in stripes isn't really a ref, but those who are have to get a grip on the question of when to whistle the bruising O'Neal.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BANG-BANG PLAY O'Neal's size, strength, quickness and skills make it difficult for even the best officials to whistle his game fairly.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN BULLY PULPIT When push comes to shove, Shaq--being embraced here by Sixers center Matt Geiger--is more than happy to do both.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.
"YOU HAVE TO PLAY CLOSE TO SHAQ," SAYS BRADLEY, "BUT YOU
ALSO WANT TO BE ABLE TO SMILE WHEN YOUR CAREER'S OVER"
"IT'S NOT ABOUT SHAQ AND THE REFS," SAYS OAKLEY. "IT'S ABOUT
GUYS WHO GUARD HIM HAVING TO CHECK THEIR OWN HEARTS"
RUSH SAYS NBA REFS HAVE BEEN WORKING ON OFFICIATING POST PLAY,
AND "SHAQ IS THE POSTER CHILD" FOR THAT EXAMINATION