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His Own Worst Enemy

When they were both 7-foot phenoms at LSU, Stanley Roberts schooled his buddy Shaquille O'Neal. Why, then, was Roberts such a bust in the NBA? And why does everybody still love him?

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."

When Scottie Pippen heard in late October that 32-year-old
Stanley Roberts was trying to come back to the NBA after, in
effect, 4 1/2 years away from the game, he went from zero to
livid in the blink of an eye. "That guy had all the talent in
the world and just let it go to waste!" the Blazers forward
snapped. "He could have been one of the great players of all

Pippen saw it firsthand. One night in Chicago in March 1992, with
the last-place Magic down by 20 and nine minutes left, Roberts
stirred to life. He blocked a Michael Jordan shot, followed his
own missed foul shot with a dunk and slammed home three other
baskets to cap an 18-point, nine-rebound night and lead Orlando
to one of that season's most stunning comebacks. Normally, those
Bulls would never compliment anyone who'd embarrassed them, but
Pippen and Jordan grabbed Roberts around the neck after the game.
"If you played like that every night," Pippen said, "do you know
how rich and famous you could be?"

Roberts never averaged more than 12 points or seven rebounds in a
season, but his shooting touch, soft hands and nimble feet were
rare qualities in a true center. Asked recently if he thought
anyone would take a chance on Roberts again, 76ers coach Larry
Brown, who coached him in Philadelphia and L.A., raises his hand
and asks for Roberts's phone number. "He had the physical talent,
he had the speed and the strength, he was not afraid," Brown
says. "I admired him. I liked him. I thought he was unbelievably
athletic." But Brown admits that he's a sucker for what he calls
"dead-end guys"; other NBA men aren't so forgiving. Offered a
chance to call Roberts, Pippen said, "I don't want to talk to
him. The guy had so much talent, and he can't even get up and
down the court. Did he get into drugs? Where's he been?"

Where? Down the hole drilled by Benoit Benjamin, Chris Washburn,
Mel Turpin, Roy Tarpley, William Bedford and other giants who
ate, drank or partied away their considerable gifts. Roberts,
maybe the best of them all, spent much of his eight-year NBA
career out of shape, smoking grass, driving his 23 cars and
flushing away nearly $35 million until early in 2001 when two of
the four women with whom he'd fathered four kids tracked him down
to ask why the child-support payments had stopped coming.

By then Roberts knew he was about to hit bottom. In November
1999, after playing five games and averaging two points with the
76ers, he had become the first player to be banned under the
NBA's newly enacted antidrug program. He had tested positive for
what the league called an amphetamine-based drug--and Roberts
calls Ecstasy. He began his two-year penalty with an all-night
drive from Philadelphia to his mother's home in Hopkins, S.C.,
learning with each passing mile how quickly a man can disappear.
After nearly a decade in the league, after all the laughing and
plane rides and games, only one colleague called to see how he
was holding up. As Roberts rolled through North Carolina at 4:30
a.m., his cellphone rang. "Keep your head up," said an unfamiliar
voice. "You're going to be all right."

"Who's this?"

"Big Will."

The two men were barely acquaintances, but now Bedford, the
former Detroit Pistons center who had been banned by the NBA for
the 1988-89 season because of cocaine use, had found Roberts so
he could welcome him into the fraternity. "I've been there,"
Bedford said. "Don't let them people bring you down."

But Roberts kept falling. In July 2000 he was arrested in Orlando
after a loud argument with the mother of his then two-year-old
daughter, Ysabella; all charges were subsequently dropped. Four
months later he was arrested in Houston for possession of
cocaine, and he plea-bargained for five years' probation. He
admits to having been dependent on pot and booze and to having
tried cocaine, but he insists that he never knowingly took the
drug found in his bloodstream by the NBA and that he did not own
the cocaine found in his car by Houston cops. He told police at
the time that the coke was his and that he was using it, but he
has since maintained that he was covering for a friend. His
league-sanctioned counselor, Gus Gerard, says Roberts has never
deviated from that story and never tested positive for cocaine
since beginning a test-and-counsel program after the arrest. So
why take the rap?

"People gave up on me, and finally I gave up on myself," Roberts
says. "After the NBA banned me, everybody thought I was a drug
user, a drug dealer. So what damage did it do to me?"

That he can't see the damage to this day is part of the mystery
of Stanley Roberts. So is his blindness to how great a player he
could've been. Dale Brown, who was the LSU coach during Roberts's
and O'Neal's one season together, 1989--90, wasn't alone in
considering Roberts the better pro prospect. When the 17-year-old
O'Neal arrived in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1989 as the most
hotly pursued recruit in the land, Brown told him he might get a
chance to play as a freshman. After all, Roberts, a Proposition
48 sophomore heading into his first college season, had hammered
Alonzo Mourning in the McDonald's High School All-American game
in 1988 and had been just as coveted as O'Neal.

When the 19-year-old Roberts met O'Neal down on the LSU practice
court known as the Dungeon to face off for the first time, people
scrambled to drag in chairs. Might play? The first time O'Neal
got the ball, he slammed right over Roberts, and Roberts returned
the favor. The next four possessions went like that: Two 7-foot,
290-pound mastodons colliding, Boom! Six times up and down the
floor, six straight dunks. Onlookers howled, and teammates jawed
at Roberts, "This is your house! Your house!"

Then, abruptly, Roberts switched gears. He took the ball on the
wing, and as Shaq stood in the lane, waiting, never thinking to
go guard him, Roberts lofted an 18-footer over his head and in.
O'Neal was frozen--and, worse, exposed. It hit Roberts at once:
You can't come out. I got you. O'Neal's feet were still heavy,
awkward, size 22 to Roberts's 16. His game was all height and
force. Roberts rained jumpers over O'Neal, and the few times Shaq
dared to step out, Roberts cut around him and dunked. On the
other end Roberts learned quickly how to time Shaq's jump hook
and slap it away, how to shiver Shaq with a forearm to the chest
at the foul line and halt his momentum before he got into the
lane, how to frustrate him until he lost focus.

"When we played each other in the NBA, he was the only one who
ever really slowed me down," O'Neal says of Roberts. "His game is
just like mine: Big, funny, silly--but he can shoot. I can't."

For that one season at LSU, the two teenagers stood poised, side
by side, on the road to hoops immortality--stood there looking,
from a distance, like twins. But the moment they took a step away
from school, their paths split. Roberts dropped out of LSU in the
summer of 1990, and after missing the deadline to declare
hardship for the NBA draft, he landed in Spain with Real Madrid.
Understanding not a word of Spanish, he bungled the use of his
prescribed diet pills, never got in shape and racked up $150,000
in fines. O'Neal, meanwhile, became the terror of college ball,
the national player of the year as a sophomore. As his reputation
grew, Roberts's shriveled. When Roberts returned from Europe for
the 1991 NBA draft, he flew from city to city with a buddy to
showcase his game, piling on pounds with each hotel meal. Once
considered a top 10 pick, he plunged to No. 23, where the Magic
swallowed hard and called his name.

With each successive step the gap between the two big men
widened. Roberts struggled with injuries in Orlando and bristled
as his boss, general manager Pat Williams, killed him on the
banquet circuit. ("We told him to start eating from the six basic
food groups," Williams would say. "A month later there were only
two!") O'Neal ruled the SEC, hearing Dick Vitale shout that he'd
make $20 million if he went pro. The gap became a chasm: With the
first pick in 1992, Orlando chose O'Neal. Three months later the
Magic unloaded Roberts on the Clippers, the NBA's black hole, in
a three-way deal contingent upon Roberts's waiving his no-trade
clause. He shrugged and figured, Why not? When he arrived in
L.A., Clippers forward Danny Manning greeted him by saying, "You
just made the biggest mistake of your life."

In the ensuing decade Roberts and O'Neal labored in the same
league but might as well have been in different dimensions. Long
before he won the first of his three NBA titles with the Lakers,
O'Neal was named one of the league's 50 greatest players ever,
cut some rap albums, made movies. He learned to watch his money.
"My first check was for a million dollars, which came to about
$600,000 [after taxes]," O'Neal says. "I spent it all in about 15
minutes. I paid my mother's credit off, I paid my father's credit
off, I bought myself a Benz with rims and speakers, and a lot of
suits. I bought my mother a Benz. I bought my father a Benz. Then
the bank called and said, 'You're $200,000 in the hole.' After
that? I was like: Slow down."

In December 1993 Roberts ruptured his right Achilles tendon; 10
months later he ruptured his left. When he finally got back into
playing shape, in 1995, he found he'd ruptured two disks in his
back. By then his finances were Swiss cheese, thanks to friends,
business partners and his own profligate spending. He smoked pot
every day of his career in Los Angeles, got so drunk that friends
would trip over him outside clubs. He propped up at least two
dozen people back home in Hopkins; whenever Stanley would go
home, says his brother Wayne, "we had a whole bunch of people
coming by." Everyone who knew Stanley punched his phone number
like an ATM code: $10,000, $20,000, no reasons asked for or
given. By the end of his Clippers tenure, Roberts had seven
people living off him at his house in L.A. Why kick them out? He
rented an apartment in Marina Del Rey, moved out of his own home
and handed over the keys.

"They didn't have any place to go, and I thought they were my
friends," Roberts says. "It turned out that none of them was
truly my friend. It was sad. I isolated myself, stopped smiling,
stopped being cheerful, stopped being the person I was."

But not for long. That would be impossible. Because the most
mysterious aspect of the Stanley Roberts saga is not that he
can't see his faults, not that he grew up in a trailer and yet
squandered his chance at fame and absurd fortune, but that the
experience did not make him bitter. He can't hold a grudge. He
opened a sporting-goods store in L.A., but the business slid into
ruin and his partner opened a similar store across the street.
Roberts never objected. His two former financial advisers, who
let $35 million rush through a kid's hands? Roberts never
accused. His buddy Wayne, the guy he traveled with on his
ill-fated draft tour? He borrowed $6,000 and never paid it back.
Roberts spoke with him just the other night.

Just as strange, there's little hard feeling against Stanley
Roberts, Pippen notwithstanding. Talk to general managers burned
by his failure, coaches frustrated by his lack of drive,
nutritionists flummoxed by his lack of will, and the word that
keeps coming back is love. Roberts had a run-in with only one
coach, and he regrets it to this day: During Clippers training
camp in 1996, he responded to daylong riding by legendary
taskmaster Bill Fitch--who was just back from triple bypass
surgery--by stalking off the court and uttering the immortal
words, "F you, you bad-heart-havin' son of a bitch."

Consider the most cutthroat profession on earth: sports agentry.
Lawyer Oscar Shoenfelt, who parted company with Roberts just four
months ago after holding his hand for 11 years, says, "I love
Stanley like a son. I miss him. Tell him I said hello, will you?"

Talk to Houston police case agent Mark Boyle, whose arrest of
Roberts in November 2000 essentially extended his NBA ban from
two years to three. Roberts invited Boyle into his house, and
while the place was being searched and the nails hammered into
his career, he chatted with Boyle and pointed out photographs.
"Even when he knew we got the stuff, he was just a super nice
guy," Boyle says. "If the NBA wants to contact me, I'll give him
a thumbs-up. If he'd needed money to make bond, I'd have thought
about putting it up. I've been in narcotics for 10 years, and
I've never run across anybody like him."

Imagine Randy Moss in that house. Or O'Neal, who, when told by an
NBA official in 1996 that he had failed a drug test--after eating
a poppy-seed muffin--offered to "pull out my joint and piss on
national television right now." As Dale Brown says, "Most every
superstar is a pain-in-the-ass, know-it-all image-maker." O'Neal
admits to all three: Just months into his career he figured out
that his private affairs would play out in the media if he didn't
keep them under wraps. He understood that in order to thrive he
had to get harder and meaner, to the point that he now finds
nothing fun about playing pro basketball. He's intent on carving
his name in history, and he figures he won't be able to enjoy
himself until the day he retires.

"I don't trust nobody," Shaq says. "I got a small camp and my
family. I got a guy who handles my money, and I got people
watching him." He doesn't much like what he's become, but he
feels that's the price to be paid. "I hate talking on the phone,"
he says. "I'm moody. I've got a lot of stress. I have problems. I
do: I have problems that will never ever be discussed."

He would certainly not trade those problems for Stanley
Roberts's. But for all the weakness Roberts has shown since they
first knew each other, O'Neal has seen in him a strength he can't
comprehend. Roberts never pointed a finger at anyone but himself.
He has forgiven more sins by friends than anyone else he knows.
He is content with himself. "He never asks for help," O'Neal
says. "I got old teammates I don't even know calling and asking
for money. Stanley never called. He's how we all should be. Look
at him: He's gone through these problems, he's still laughing. I
went to Vegas, I lost $1,000, I'm ready to fight everybody in the
club. But Stanley? Jolly, always smiling. He's going to heaven.
Not everybody's going to go to heaven."

The two men are sitting on a terrace at the Beverly Hills Four
Seasons, a long way from Baton Rouge and 1989. Since then, O'Neal
and Roberts have fathered four children apiece and tasted the
life of American royalty. Translation: "I've had the beautifulest
women," Roberts says. "I've partied all over the world, I've
owned the mansions, I've owned the Bentleys, I've owned the
boats." Still, a conversation about college has the same effect
on rich and poor, black and white: If you're lucky, you forged a
friendship when you had the energy of a colt and time to let it
flow, and you shared some stupid, hilarious adventures.

"First day of work, Merritt Construction," O'Neal says. He's
wearing a black silk T-shirt. The lights reflect off his sleek
shaved head. It's the night before his much-anticipated return
against the Bulls; practice went long today, and he's tired, but
he isn't going anywhere. He's got to tell about the tornado.
"Stan and some other guys are sitting around. I'm the rookie, so
they tell me to go outside and cut grass. I go out, and it's
black as hell...."

Roberts, carrying the same 345 pounds as Shaq but more loosely,
wears a light-blue T-shirt with the cartoon character Fat Albert
on his chest. As the memory floods back he begins cackling and
gasping until he actually looks a bit like Fat Albert. He manages
to interject a weak "Hey, yo," but Shaq's on a roll.

"So the wind is blowing and the guys are saying, 'Come in, it's a
tornado!' I'm like, 'Huh? A tornado?' And that big thing was
coming. I see it, and I'm running inside, and I ducked down, and
the thing bounced right over our building. I said, 'That's it. I
ain't coming to work tomorrow.'"

"He ain't coming back no more!" Stanley roars. "Naw, he was up
under a desk--"

"Yeah, under a desk."

"And I was stuck in a corner; I don't know how the hell I got in
there." Roberts finally regains his breath. "Yeah," he says. "We
had some good times."

"The best times," Shaq says. "Because back then there was no
money, no stress. Wake up, go to three classes, come back and
take a nap, then go practice. Wait a couple of hours and go out,
to the frat parties, to the Tiger, to sports. That's the life."

And off they go: To the nights when the 17-year-old O'Neal had to
chauffeur Roberts and other players to bars, feeling like a fool
because he was underage and would be stuck outside with a 7-Eleven
orange juice wrapped in brown paper to make it look like
something stronger, then driving them home with the club-stink of
booze and smoke and fun filling the car. To the football games at
which the tailgaters would wave them over to sample crawfish.
"Two young nobodies," O'Neal says, "but they treated us like
kings." To the big games they won that year, against Loyola
Marymount and UNLV, and the one they lost to Georgia Tech in the
second round of the NCAAs, destroying what seemed like a sure
shot at a national title. To the nights when women would swarm
Roberts and ignore the younger superstar-to-be. "I was always
terrified of being set up by women," O'Neal says. "Stan was
always nice to the ladies, and they loved it."

Roberts cuts in: "How about that time we went to my girlfriend's,
and she was cheating on me, and the guy was in the house? We
walked right in. And Shaq said, 'Man, let's go whip that mother's
ass!' Remember?"

Of course O'Neal remembers. Just as vivid is his memory that
Stanley didn't seem to mind that much. He calmed O'Neal down, and
the two giants left two grateful sinners behind, and that was the
difference between them: Roberts just couldn't get angry. O'Neal
had already begun to figure that out. One day during their first
summer together, the two were battling viciously in the Dungeon,
temperatures rising until Shaq wrapped a forearm around Roberts's
neck and threw him to the ground. The two squared off, and O'Neal
grabbed a garbage can and hurled it at Roberts just before
teammates stepped in. After the rest of the team had gone, Shaq
went searching for Roberts, intent on "whupping his ass," he
says. He found him upstairs, waiting, and began his charge....

"Come on," Stanley said. "Let's get something to eat."

On the court, of course, they pounded each other, and Roberts
didn't give an inch. Shaq's entire high school career in San
Antonio, he'd had his way with opponents four, six, eight inches
shorter. But now he was getting all he could handle and more, and
looking back on that time he knows that Stanley Roberts was a
gift. To succeed, Shaq had no choice but to tap into a rage he
had never needed before. "I can truly say Stan made me," O'Neal
says. "If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be like everybody else:
7-foot, can't play. But I had to get mean. I had to learn how to
dunk on somebody that size. Once you know how to dunk on somebody
that size, you know what to do against all guys."

O'Neal loved the battle, but he'd grown up without the
impregnable aura granted to most big men. His mom, Lucille, and
stepfather, Army sergeant Phil Harrison, insisted on good grades
and good behavior and ensured them with good whippings. As a kid
in Newark and then San Antonio, Shaq played pickup football and
relished the tackling even when the game was on pavement. He
needed to show others that he could take it. By the end of high
school he burned with a little man's ambition; he wanted to make
noise as a rap singer, make movies, be a star. He fought plenty,
and when he got to LSU he was eager to get nasty again.

Stanley didn't like getting hit. As a boy, every Sunday, he and
his older brother, Wayne, would walk out of the trailer ruled by
his mother, Isabella Davis, to play football a few houses over,
and every Sunday he'd come back within minutes bawling like an
infant. His father, Robert Lee Davis, would often be gone months
at a time on his job as a long-haul trucker; Stanley kept the
house neat and cooked while his mother worked nights as a
custodian at the University of South Carolina. He was happy being
a mama's boy. He never dreamed of anything for himself beyond a
warm house and a car.

Then he began to grow. By ninth grade he stood 6'7" but was more
interested in sneaking sips of beer before class than in playing
basketball. Wayne played for Jim Childers at Lower Richland High
and told him to check out Stanley, and soon Childers and everyone
else was pressuring the boy to attend a nearby hoops camp.
Stanley was horrible, clumsy; by the time he'd get to half-court,
kids were already coming back the other way. The summer before
10th-grade tryouts were to be held, Wayne and a cousin and an
uncle took Stanley to a nearby playground every day and punished
him with endless games and drills. When Childers convened the
team a few weeks later, the first six times Stanley touched the
ball, he dribbled downcourt and dunked. Within months he was a
star at Lower Richland. He never wanted to play basketball. The
game always came to him.

"I ended up on varsity and became an All-America by the end of
10th grade," Roberts says. "I just coasted through from that
point on."

Sure, he loved the adulation and respect, and when one letter
from a college became four boxes of letters, Stanley saw that
hoops was something he could use. But he never had a jock's ego.
He would shock Childers by asking to be pulled from the starting
lineup, by stopping to help opponents he knocked over. He seemed
more passionate about making Childers's daughter, Amy, who had
cerebral palsy, laugh as he held her high over his head; to this
day Amy's face lights up when she hears Stanley's name. But after
the afternoon of April 21, 1987? After Wayne got jumped and
pulled out a pistol and killed an 18yearold boy? There would
never be a time when Stanley would think of a game as a matter of
life and death.

The legal proceedings unfolded throughout Stanley's senior year
of high school, and what had been just another intense
recruitment of a blue-chip prospect became harrowing. Stanley
narrowed his choices to LSU, Georgia Tech and South Carolina, and
the drama began: The judge who'd conducted Wayne's preliminary
hearing called the Roberts family to say that Stanley should play
for the Gamecocks. Anonymous calls threatened Wayne with hard
time if Stanley didn't go to South Carolina. State authorities
investigated but couldn't unearth solid evidence of wrongdoing.
Still, Stanley was racked by uncertainty. He wanted to get far
away from South Carolina, but what if his choice sent his brother
to prison? To this day Stanley insists that his mother, at her
job on campus, was pressured by people inside and outside the
Gamecocks' basketball office. For the first time in their lives
Stanley and his mom argued; she was sure Stanley could make the
difference for her first-born and begged Stanley to put off his
decision until after the trial. Yet the trial kept being delayed.
Only Wayne, as always, kept Stanley strong. He said, "I messed
up. Go to school where you want. If I go to jail, I go."

In November '87 Roberts announced his intention to attend LSU.
Nothing that has happened to him since--not the NBA ban, not his
arrest for cocaine possession, not even his inability to support
his kids these last three years--scarred Roberts like that last
high school basketball season. Lower Richland won a second
straight state title, but the joy of that was erased by a
constant fear. Wayne was acquitted of all charges in February
1988, but by then something in him had curdled; he was never
again the tough, contained kid Stanley had worshiped. After Wayne
came home from jail, Stanley found him in his room copying
passages from the Bible, shattered and weeping. He said, "Man, I
wish I'd never killed that guy. It's just the worst thing to ever
do. You take somebody's child."

Stanley's final weeks at Lower Richland were spent in the company
of two FBI agents, who guarded him because of rumors that the
dead man's brother or his friends would retaliate against him.
Just after being handed his diploma, Stanley was rushed to the
Division of Motor Vehicles to get his license, then to the
airport for the plane to Baton Rouge. "I didn't celebrate, didn't
see any high school friends, didn't get to do anything," he says.
"I had to leave. I didn't go back for a year and a half."

He had to sit out his freshman year to work on his grades. That
didn't take. A missed class earned him a six o'clock run the next
morning, then study sessions under the supervision of Coach
Brown. After one session Stanley hugged Brown, thanked him for
caring and said, "I love you." Brown felt like a miracle man. He
thought, Maybe you can get through to a kid and change his life.
A few hours later the call came in: Stanley had missed two
classes, had been found sleeping on a sofa in the student union.
Stanley blamed only himself, as usual, but nothing changed. When
Brown caught Stanley drinking a can of beer in the dorm in his
sophomore year, he poured it out, suspended him and turned to go.
Stanley told him to wait, reached under his bed and handed over
the rest of the case.

On the court it was no different. Brown, who could talk Tiger
Woods into taking a stand on Augusta, butted his head against
Stanley's happy indifference. Only once, when Brown charged
Stanley up for that 10-for-10 shooting night against Loyola
Marymount by telling him the Lions didn't think he could keep up
with their run-'n'-gun game, did the coach feel he'd found a
button to push. "I failed with Stanley," Brown says. "He's the
one paramount guy I could never get to."

The secret, Shaq says, is to get Stanley mad. But that's almost
impossible. If an NBA fan mockingly sent a hot dog down to the
bench during a game, Roberts was likely to thank the man and eat
it. Once, when the Clippers were playing the Nuggets, Denver
forward Tom Hammonds elbowed Roberts in the face, and Roberts
charged across the court toward him, muttering that he was going
to kill him. Hammonds turned, cracked Roberts in the ear, and all
that rage dissolved into nothing. "He knocked all the anger out
of me," Roberts says. "I was like, 'Damn, he hits hard.'"

Such a response is unfathomable to O'Neal, and not only because
his first instinct would have been to split Hammonds in two. He
learned: So ignitable a fuel is too valuable to waste. Shaq
dominated opponents during his early years in Orlando, but he
didn't win championships. His first chance against Houston in the
1995 Finals, he got outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon-- "respected him
too much," he says--and lost. Critics called O'Neal
one-dimensional, overrated, distracted by his music and movies.
He vowed never to give them that opportunity again. With the
arrival of coach Phil Jackson in L.A. in 1999, O'Neal figured
he'd have another chance, but only if he played with a sneer. He
began to manufacture his meanness out of thin air. These days, he
has the process down to a science.

Shaq welcomes the thought of driving through bad traffic for his
comeback game tomorrow. "I'm going to be steaming," he says. "And
I'll play with that in the game." He invents slights where none
exist, raises the subject when no one is asking. Dikembe
Mutombo's award-winning season two years ago? An affront. ("How
can you be defensive player of the year if you can't stop me?")
Ben Wallace's rise to stardom? A joke. ("Print it: I dare Ben to
play me one-on-one. I'm getting 30.") And if an opponent so much
as mentions him? O'Neal escalates that into a spit in the face.

The way O'Neal figures it, the league has gone insultingly soft
in the middle during the three years Roberts missed, making him
more attractive than he has been in a long time. All the classic
centers--Shaq aside--are finished or nearly so, replaced by
converted forwards and willowy jump shooters who have no idea how
to play in the paint. "That's why I can't wait to get ahold of
Yao Ming," O'Neal says of the Houston center who, someone says,
just scored a season-high 30 points in a game against Dallas. "I
look forward to breaking down that mother's body."

Roberts howls. "Aw," he says, "let me at him first!"

O'Neal grins and nods. "Yao Ming can play. He's got some skills,
but he hasn't experienced the boom-boom yet. You know what I'm
going to do? I'm going to get the tape, and I'm going to study
it. I'm going to know it all, and then I'm going to really take
it to him. He hasn't showed if he could take that force or not."

"He ain't got no upper-body strength," Roberts says. "None."

"And my man, he said my name three times," Shaq says, his voice
rising. "Two in Chinese and one in American. You don't ever call
me out. I'm from LSU."

That, of course, sets off a big round of woofing and laughing,
and suddenly all the years and all the success and failure fall
away. The two men sit side by side again, back where their paths
began. O'Neal starts talking about two of his sons. The littlest
is like him, mean and angry. His other son is like Stanley,
"nice, silly, easygoing," he says. "I have a little Stan and a
little Shaq in my house." And every day it's like Baton Rouge all
over. Every day O'Neal makes them wrestle and fight, 30-second
rounds, because he knows they're going to be huge and he can't
abide their growing up soft and 7-foot. "They've got to get
tough," he says. He has seen the alternative.

The two men stand. Roberts and O'Neal hug, say "I love you" and
walk toward the hotel entrance, passing through the Four Seasons
bar, passing celebrities like Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz.
Conversation stops, heads swivel: Shaquille O'Neal is passing
through. Walking in his wake, head bowed, is Stanley Roberts, and
seeing the ease with which O'Neal takes in the stares and the
hellos, the chiseled hardness of his frame and mind, he feels
their paths splitting, feels the gap again becoming a chasm.

"Here, dawg," Shaquille says as they walk to his truck. "You need
some cash?"

"I appreciate the offer," Roberts says, "but you know how we

"I understand, but I know it's been hard."

"I appreciate it. But no. You know how we are."

A few moments later Roberts is in a car, rolling through Beverly
Hills. He doesn't speak for 30 seconds, the air filled with
silence and the flash of headlights. "I love Shaquille to death,"
he says softly, to himself. "But I can't handle him on the court

Just outside Columbia, S.C., off the interstate and past Lower
Richland High and the elementary school on Congaree Road, a big
house stands empty. Weeds fill the yard; what grass there is has
long grown too high and now lies down under the winter sun in a
kind of surrender. But this is no antebellum ruin. Everything
inside--the windows, the six bathtubs, the rusting nails, the tar
paper peeling off the wood--is new. No one has ever lived here.
This was a promise never kept. This was the house Stanley Roberts
was building for his mother when the money ran dry.

Isn't it sad? Isn't it pathetic and cruel? And there's no
escaping it. Every day, Stanley's mother, retired with one
artificial knee and another coming in February, has no choice but
to see this monument to underachievement. Isabella Davis lives
directly across Congaree Road from the house that her son didn't
finish building--just a full-court pass away--in the trailer
where she has spent most of her life. She says she doesn't mind,
says she didn't ask for the house in the first place. But she was
so proud when Stanley began building it in 1997. Now people come
by and ask if it's for sale, and she has no idea how to answer.
Worse, everybody who grew up with Stanley knows his failure, and
if a man who once had no problem spending almost $1 million in a
day and never learned better can't deliver on this one thing for
his mom, then what was it all for, anyway?

Looked at from the front door of the trailer, it all seems such a
waste, Roberts's life. But it's a curious thing: Ask him if he
wants to come back to the NBA for this simple reason--to finish
the house left half built after his banishment in 1999--and he
says yes and "it hurts" and "she should be in her house by now."
But there is no hardness in his eyes, not even now, and it isn't
because he is a stupid man, or unfeeling. Roberts can dissect
weakness in others and in himself, can weep while speaking of how
he never told his father he loved him before he died, can sense
unerringly when someone needs a hug or a kind word.

But then you cross the street and look back from the other side:
back at the trailer Roberts grew up in, the trailer festooned
with Christmas lights, the home that for his mom was a step up
from her family's shack, now crumbling in the woods nearby. Ask
Stanley, and he tells you he's been fortunate. Back in the car,
trying to describe himself, he cites a band called Nappy Roots
and a song called Po' Folks; finally, impatiently, he pops the CD
into the deck and sings along.

All my life been po'
But it really don't matter no mo'
And they wonder why we act this way
Nappy Boys gon' be O.K....

We came in the game, plain ya see
Average man when the rest was ashamed to be
Nappy head and all, ain't no changing me....

The people who told him he could be great? All those recruiting
letters, all the motivating words of his coaches and all that NBA
money? Roberts never believed any of it. It was always more than
what Larry Brown says, never just that "Stanley didn't want it as
much as I wanted it for him." Roberts knew before anyone: He was
never going to be Shaq. "I didn't think I was that good," he
says, and yet that doesn't explain why a big man would try with
each mistake to make himself smaller.

Sometimes I ask myself, was I made for the world?
I scream this to you, and I say it to the world
Nappy then, Nappy now--Nappy for a bit
Knee-deep, head over heels in this country s---!

The song says: I was born to lose. Roberts was born to build a
house without lights or human voices. He was born to be
unfinished, to tantalize with what could be or should be but
never will be. His brother's alive, his mother's alive, he's
alive and grateful, by God, and as the music pumps up and the car
glides through a soft Pacific night, he shouts, "Now do you know
what I'm talking about?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER HANG TIME Roberts (at home in Houston) wants to play in the NBA again, but until he's reinstated and signed, he's stuck in a lower court.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER BIG ARISTOTLE'S ARISTOTLE Though Stanley now looks up to Shaq, it was the other way around in college (opposite).

B/W PHOTO: BRAD MESSINA [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN MAN OF PROMISE When he was in high school the lean, athletic Roberts was as coveted a recruit as Shaq would later be.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES HEAVY GOING For eight pro seasons, Roberts (battling Shaq in '98) was usually out of shape.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER UNFINISHED BUSINESS Roberts abandoned the house he started building for his mother, Isabella, when his money ran out.

Stanley Roberts? The man who, O'Neal says, "made me what I am
today"? He knows that people in the NBA regard him as a broken

"In the NBA, Stanley was the only one who ever really slowed me

Shaq says. "His game is just like mine--but he can shoot. I

Talk to NBA general managers burned by Roberts's failure, to
coaches frustrated by his lack of drive, and the word that keeps
coming back is love.

Looked at from the front door of the trailer, it all seems such a
waste, Roberts's life. But ask Stanley, and he tells you he's
been fortunate.