Shaq: He Took. He Ran. He is Rubbing It In.
Most people who leave town with too little accomplished and too much of someone else’s money know enough to keep it to themselves. So mark this down as one more way in which Shaquille O’Neal is not like most people.
He couldn’t resist rubbing it in.
``I’m just glad to be playing now for people who know the game and know the business,″ Shaq said in an interview earlier this week with the Los Angeles Times.
NBA training camps just opened and the start of the season is still a month away. So it will be some time before the truth of that statement is known. Not the part about O’Neal being glad to play for the Lakers, of course, but the second part. That bit about the organization being so well-informed. Two months ago, Los Angeles signed Shaq to a seven-year, $121-million deal. If the past turns out to be prologue, what they will get for that sum is a little heartache and a lot of regrets.
At least that’s the way things worked out for Orlando Magic. And this might be what the organization regrets most: For all the things the money lavished on Shaq through four seasons didn’t buy _ loyalty, appreciation, an NBA championship, _ it didn’t even guarantee his silence.
The Magic drafted O’Neal in 1992, turned over the keys to the house and let him do everything pretty much his way. The team ran the offense he wanted, surrounded him with the players he wanted, let him run off to attend to side businesses when he wanted, renegotiated his contract when he demanded and pretty much saw to it that Shaq was among the most-contented players in the league. Nothing unusual there.
Because it is a five-man game, basketball is one sport where an impact player is just that _ both immediately and for a long time. And so teams where the tail appears to be wagging the dog are the rule and not the exception. It happens in towns where management is shrewd _ think Michael Jordan in Chicago _ and in towns where management is clueless _ think everywhere Derrick Coleman has been. And it happened with Shaq in Orlando, with results somewhere in between.
Orlando made it to the playoffs for the first time in 1994, only to be swept out of the first round by Indiana. In 1995, the Magic made the finals, only to be swept by Houston. Earlier this spring, they made the conference finals against the Bulls ... and did their customary four-and-out swoon.
Not long after that, the bidding war with Los Angeles began. It was supposed to have ended when O’Neal passed up Orlando’s last offer for $115 million. But then Magic general manager John Gabriel gave a speech somewhere and did some sniping at O’Neal. It struck a nerve the organization had been searching for since drafting Shaq; he responded with a ferocity he never showed in the fourth quarter of playoff games.
``Money isn’t everything. I don’t play for money,″ he said, which is what ballplayers always say but almost never mean.
``I can remember days growing up when I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have sneakers, I didn’t have shorts, nothing. But I played. The money is there. It’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it was the best offer because of the players surrounding me, the staff, the organization.″
O’Neal then knocked his old teammates, singling out Nick Anderson, for wanting the ball too often, and his former coach, Brian Hill, for encouraging that kind of play. It’s called teamwork, though Shaq could not bring himself to pronounce the word in four seasons there.
``I used to go in the lockerroom and get on guys, and he would say, `Don’t do that. You’re gonna hurt his feelings.′ I said, `Look, man, this is the professionals, bro. You’re the coach. They’ve got to do what you say. If they don’t do what you say, there’s two places they can go _ either the bench or to a new team. Period.‴
There it is, whether you wanted to know what caused the breakup or not. Magic team president Bob Vander Wiede said in a statement Tuesday night that his organization ``will not respond to any further comment that Shaq might choose to make about his past with us.″
But at least now we can guess. It wasn’t just the money in LA. Or a desire to advance his acting-rapping-writing-clothes-designing careers with less travel.
No, in the end, it was because no one in Orlando was listening to him . Imagine that.