Twenty-five years after his Madison Square Garden debut, SHAQUILLE O'NEAL looks back on his first showdown with Patrick Ewing, reveals the four big men who gave him the most trouble (Rik Smits?) and examines his place in the pantheon of the pivot. And he'd also appreciate it if you'd keep your eyes open for a pair of diamond earrings...
HE ARRIVES NOISILY, like he always does, like he no doubt always will, and certainly like he did 25 years ago, when his antic, oversized charm was loosed upon the NBA. "Sorry I'm late," says Shaquille O'Neal. "A truckful of elephants crashed on the highway." O'Neal is not actually sorry, nor, by the parameters of the Shaquille Standard Meridian, is he actually late, his arrival being only 40 minutes behind plan. For those who know him, that was pretty much predicted tip-off time.
He is filling up a small room in the TNT Studios in Atlanta, where Shaq, 45, has been asked to reflect upon his past, specifically a Nov. 21, 1992 game against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the occasion of both his first Big Man Showdown and his first SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover as a pro.
"How did I do in the game?" asks the Big Aristotle, one of his favorite self-generated sobriquets.
"Knicks won 92--77, but you outscored [18--15] and outrebounded [17--9] Patrick," he is told.
"That's all I need to hear," he says. As it turns out, though, Shaq remembers much about his Garden debut.
Over these ensuing 25 years, O'Neal won four championships and three Finals MVP awards, earned an Olympic gold medal in 1996, entered both the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame and the unofficial Hallowed Hall of Dominant Big Men, and retained a cultural currency that goes well beyond his Inside the NBA employment, a gig he has held since 2011 despite being a sometimes stutterer and a part-time mumbler. His Shaquille O'Neal Presents: All-Star Comedy Jam runs on Showtime. He brought the house down not long ago in a lip-synch battle with Jimmy Fallon when he called on Pitbull for assistance. And when the other Jimmy had to miss a week of his show last month, Shaq was installed as the leadoff guest host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! to be followed by an A-list lineup of Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum and Dave Grohl.
His appeal remains essentially the same as it was back in 1993, when he led his elders (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton) through a memorable Reebok commercial, or in 1996, when he played a 5,000-year-old genie in the (not so) critically acclaimed Kazaam, or today, when his hilarious "Shaqtin' a Fool" segments skewer players who commit particularly egregious turnovers, air balls or flops. He decimates the stereotype of the Brooding Big Man, conveying a gentleness and goodwill that can't quite mask the reality of his pure bulk (7'1", 350 to 360 right now, perhaps 30 pounds more than his playing weight) and the rim-ripping violence with which he conducted his 19-year career. He never threatens a room, but he sure as hell fills it.
We did not watch this Shaq-Ewing game in linear fashion, and sometimes we didn't watch it at all. But his comments—delivered with nary a mumble—came from gazing at this now seemingly ancient film, which unspools to reveal a much slimmer giant, powerful yet graceful, a sometimes questioning look on his expressive face, as if he wonders himself what lies ahead.
TURNS OUT SUPERMAN HAD SOME SERIOUS AGITA
In the hours before the game, Shaq had presented the aspect of a guileless kid who doesn't seem to know enough to be intimidated. Wandering around Times Square in a black leather coat emblazoned with a Superman logo on the back, Shaq suddenly stopped and said to his best bud, third-year guard Dennis Scott, "Right in this area they filmed Home Alone 2."
As is turns out, he was hiding his true feelings during that SI photo shoot.
"I haven't said this to anybody before, but I was terrified," says O'Neal, settling into his seat in the studio. "I was terrified because I said to myself that Patrick Ewing is a 10. I'm about a 4, so I don't want to get super embarrassed."
O'Neal stares at the TV, which shows him sitting on the bench before the introduction of the starting lineups.
"I'm about to face Ewing," continues Shaq. "I'm just sitting there faking it until I make it. I'm thinking that I'm in New York and I don't want to wake up in the morning and see in The New York Times, EWING 50, SHAQ 10, or read: EWING HOLDS SHAQ TO SINGLE DIGITS.
"But even though I was terrified, I'm not going to show people that I'm terrified, because when you're facing an opponent, the first thing I like to do is just look at them. Guys like Vlade Divac, I look in their eyes and they put their head down, and then I knew I had them. So I didn't want anyone to be able to look in my eyes and see that."
But Ewing wasn't a put-his-head-down opponent, right?
"No," answers Shaq, "Patrick didn't put his head down."
SEE THE MAN FIGHT OFF THE STAGE FRIGHT
It was interesting to watch Shaq rediscover all those moments that meant something in this first game, the little things that helped orient him in his Garden debut.
"So right here I lose the [opening] tip, so now I'm extra nervous after that," says Shaq. "I know they're coming to Ewing the first play of the game, so I don't want to lose contact with him. I don't want him to get too deep in the post ... right here, guy shoots it, it goes in [Knicks guard Rolando Blackman makes a short jumper], and the crowd goes crazy. Phew, they didn't throw it to Ewing. So now, come on, Scott [Magic point guard Scott Skiles], throw it to me. Let me see what I can do against the great Patrick Ewing. So the play right here is called 5-cross, Scottie throws the ball over. They're trying to go to me...."
But Knicks guard Doc Rivers—yes, that Doc Rivers, now the coach of the Clippers—steals the ball from Skiles, and at the other end Ewing drops in a short jumper.
"So now I'm like, Uh-oh, Ewing hit his first shot. Most of the time when guys hit their first shot, great players like that, they're going to be rolling the whole game. So now I said, O.K., he scored, now let me see what I can do. [O'Neal makes a nice inside move but clangs the shot.] So right here I shot the ball, and he wasn't on my shot so now I'm saying to myself, I can get my shot off anytime I want to. He's still Patrick Ewing, but I got a little more lift, [I'm a] little bit quicker than him, so now that I took the shot, my nerves are easing a little bit more."
SHAQ'S FANTASTIC FOUR, A MOTIVATIONAL LIE ABOUT THE ADMIRAL, SMITS GAVE HIM FITS
Watching Ewing stirs Shaq's memories of other center foes. He sees not just Patrick but a gathering of old souls. He says he wasn't worried about challenges from the players drafted right behind him in 1992, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner, but did have four veteran players looming in his sights. "Just like in Greek mythology," says Shaq, "there's always a guy that's equal or greater than you. And they go by the name of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Rik Smits. So I had to work my way up. The only advantage I had against those guys was that they were getting older and I was still young."
Over the course of the game, he praises Ewing for his soft touch, his competitiveness and his hard-boiled devotion to what Shaq calls "the Georgetown move"—faking left and going right for a running jump hook. He moves on to Robinson.
"I used to love [David] so much that I had to create a story to make me hate him. I finally confessed this to him last year. I used to tell everyone that when I was young I asked him for an autograph and he told me no. Wasn't true. He was the nicest guy in the world. I can't beat my friends up, but I can kill my enemies, so I had to make a story up in my head. It didn't work. That guy used to run me into the ground every time. Ran the floor, great body, soft touch, great team player.
"I worked out with Hakeem a few times, and he held back. He showed me a couple of moves, but when we played in the Finals [in 1995, when Olajuwon's Rockets swept Shaq's Magic], I was like, 'That's not what you showed me.' He had a lot of stuff."
I then expressed some surprise that Smits, far less celebrated today than the Ewing/Robinson/Olajuwon troika, was included in O'Neal's personal hall of horrors. But Shaq is emphatic. "Rik destroyed me every time. Oh, my God. Pick-and-pop, jump hook in the post, I couldn't stop that kid. If it wasn't for his foot problems, I probably [never would] have been able to stop him. When we played them in the  Finals, I had to go back to some old tape. I saw that this guy used to kill me, so now that I'm here in the Finals, I got to kill him immediately so he understands this is a different Shaq."
O'Neal, then at the height of his powers, obliterated Smits and the Indiana Pacers, averaging a monster 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds per game in the Lakers' six-game march to the title.
HEAVY PROPS FOR LAETTNER
As he watches Ewing's soft touch, O'Neal remembers what was said about his own game back then. "The knock coming in was that I was only a power player, that I had no finesse moves," says Shaq. "If you look at how developed Patrick and David Robinson and Hakeem were, I didn't have any of that. I had to develop it." O'Neal says that rep made him doubt that he would be the top pick. "I knew Christian Laettner had way more skills than I had," says O'Neal. "I knew Alonzo was better defensively than I was. So maybe I'm not the No. 1 pick, I thought. If you go back to draft day and David Stern calls my name, I go, 'Who me?' So what I felt happiest about was being able to outcompete Alonzo and Christian. I had to kill those two guys every time."
So, Shaq, we're supposed to believe that you were worried about dominating Laettner, who had been selected ahead of you to be the token collegian on the Dream Team, but who, in the opinion of almost everyone, would never be better than you in the NBA? O'Neal insists it's true.
"Christian ate me up in college," says O'Neal. "The first year he destroyed me. I didn't know who he was. He killed me. Second year I kind of held my own and dominated the game, but we still lost." O'Neal's memory is spot-on. Laettner had 24 and 11 against O'Neal's 15 and 10 in Duke's 88--70 win over LSU in 1991. The next year, in a 77--67 Duke victory, Shaq had 25 and 12 and Laettner had 22 and 10. The Blue Devils won the national championship in both of those seasons.
IF YOU FOUND A PAIR OF $60,000 EARRINGS IN A MCDONALD'S BAG YEARS AGO...
On a couple of occasions when Dennis Scott appears onscreen, Shaq comments on how lucky he was to have him around "to teach me how to be a professional." Alas, Scott wasn't in charge of Shaq's wallet.
"I was a 20-year-old kid with $30 million, two houses, 10 cars, didn't know what to do, didn't know how to act," says O'Neal. "Yeah, I threw a lot of money away. I bought a '92 Benz, but when the '93 Benz came out I wanted the '93 Benz, which looked exactly like the '92 Benz. I did that every year for about 10 years until I realized, What am I doing? It's the same car.
"I spent so much in jewelry. Not classy jewelry. Truck jewelry. Ghetto-rapper jewelry. I got the diamond chains, the diamond necklaces. I went to a jewelry store one day and bought a pair of earrings for $60,000. And I lost the earrings going from the jewelry store to the car. I went back to the store, and the guy said I walked out with the bag. After that I said I'm never buying crazy jewelry again."
I point to his left ear. "Any chance these are the lost ones?"
"Trust me," says Shaq, "these are cubic zirconia.
OF COURSE WE MUST TALK SOME MAMBA
The conversation turns inevitably to Los Angeles. In the summer of 1996, after four years with the Magic, O'Neal signed a seven-year, $120 million free-agent deal with the Lakers. The signing took place long after midnight in a suite in a downtown hotel in Atlanta, where the Olympics were just getting started. Shaq was out "jammin' at a club" when he got the call that, as he puts it, "the great Jerry West wanted to meet me." So Shaq abruptly left the club. That's how much he wanted to go to L.A., where he had bought a house during his rookie season.
Phil Jackson joined the dynamic duo of O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 1999, and the Lakers went on to win three straight championships. An early exit in 2003 was followed by a Finals loss in '04, and a month later O'Neal was dealt to the Heat.
Do you ever wonder, Shaq is asked, if it ended too soon, that those Lakers had the potential to win a few more championships?
"Every now and then I think about it," says Shaq, looking at the final moments of the game and perhaps waxing a little nostalgic as he watches his 20-year-old self. "But remember how I used to tell you I watched karate movies? Well, I used to watch Mafia movies, too. There's always the young capo that kills the Don and becomes the Don. That's exactly what happened with Kobe.
"Kobe was No. 2, I was No. 1. He didn't want to be No. 2 anymore, so management made a decision and they chose him because I was getting older. I think if we would've won that Finals after we constructed the superteam [Karl Malone and Gary Payton came to the Lakers] against Detroit, they would've kept us together. But the fact that we lost and Kobe's deal was coming up, I'm sure his agents were telling management, 'Hey we're going to look to do other things.' And they thought, 'We can probably afford to lose the big guy, but we can't lose this young kid.' They had a choice, and I understood that choice."
SHAQ ON HIS REGRETS AND HIS LEGACY
The long-ago Knicks-Magic game is off the screen now, but Shaq is in a reflective mood. He's asked how he wants to be remembered as a player, and he begins with an obvious subject, albeit one he didn't like to talk about when he was playing.
"I'm upset at myself for missing all those free throws," he says. "I'm upset at myself for getting hurt the last year in Boston because I wasn't averaging a lot of points and I needed a few more points to pass Wilt Chamberlain. [Actually he needed a few thousand more, with Wilt the fifth all-time leading scorer with 31,419 points, Shaq eighth with 28,596.] And once I passed Wilt in points—I already passed him in championships—I was going to arrogantly say to everybody in the world that I'm the most dominant big man ever, and I don't want to ever hear anybody else's name again. I don't want to hear Russell. Don't want to hear Kareem. Don't want to hear Chamberlain. That title belongs to me."
Then he stops and considers. "But I didn't make it there."
No, he didn't. A 52% career foul shooter, O'Neal missed 5,317 free throws. (Then again, Wilt missed 5,805 in five fewer seasons.) And even discounting his abbreviated last season with the Boston Celtics, Shaq also missed 269 games due to various injuries, some of them nagging and the result of poor conditioning. He may protest, but he did not take the game as seriously as Russell, Abdul-Jabbar or Walton did. Shaq was more like Wilt. Developing an off-court persona was extremely important to him, and distractions (movies, rap albums, commercials, general partying) were multitudinous.
So he belongs, by honest measure, behind, in some order, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell.
But also to be considered is the full measure of the man's impact upon the game and the culture.
"One thing's for sure," says Shaq, gathering up his energy for a long evening of Shaqtin' and sparring with Charles. "I'm glad I did it my way."
We can be glad for that, too.
"I was terrified. I said to myself that PATRICK EWING IS A 10. I'M ABOUT A 4, so I don't want to get super embarrassed."
"I was going to arrogantly say to everybody that I'm the most dominant big man ever. BUT I DIDN'T MAKE IT THERE."
Shaq ambles down memory lane. Watch SI TV on Amazon Channels.