When David Stern had the relentless resolve to make everyone forget the debauchery of a lost All-Star weekend on the Vegas Strip and a mobbed-up dirty referee, the commissioner turned New Orleans into a post-Katrina photo-op for the NBA’s beleaguered brand. He made sure every paint-brush stroke, every stunted swing of a hammer, had camera lenses to bear witness to the world.
From the feel-good manipulation of New Orleans, a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals and Team USA gold in Beijing, the NBA now indulges itself in the sexiest story line of all. Lakers vs. Lakers, the reunion of Kobe, Shaq and Phil in the All-Star Game on Feb. 15 in Phoenix. All that duplicity, all that dominance, and here it comes again: The boys are back for a command performance.
“I’d love to see Shaquille and Kobe have a chance to play together,” Phil Jackson said recently. “I think people would like seeing that.”
Somehow, Shaquille O’Neal dusted the debris off of a flat-lining career and willed his way onto the Western Conference reserves. The coaches couldn’t resist voting him onto the team and letting him lord again over the sport’s biggest party. Jackson and Kobe Bryant were so sure that they had left O’Neal in the dust, left him to YouTube lore and his eternal freestyle rapping question of how that fat fanny tasted to his old Lakers teammate.
Only, here is Shaq again, the official host of All-Star foolery in February. This promises to be a weekend of grudging bygones, revisionist history and, maybe most of all, a retro tribute to the dysfunctional dynasty that captivated the post-Michael Jordan NBA.
Before Shaq’s selection on Thursday, he had already started to get his story again. “A lot of people want to say me and Kobe was the personality issue,” he told the Washington Post’s Mike Wise this week. Yet, Shaq still insists that Lakers owner Jerry Buss pulled back a contract extension that ultimately doomed his L.A. future.
“Of all the seen and unseen in that drama, it came down to: ‘But what about what you promised, buddy?’ Above all, I’m a businessman. I had to go.”
If only he had the authority to mediate, Stern must wish he could’ve stopped the split and spared himself the ensuing reign of those rating-killing, drama-free San Antonio Spurs. Asked about his dream NBA Finals a few years ago, Stern delivered a dose of honesty: Lakers vs. Lakers. Shaq would go win a title with Dwyane Wade in Miami, but everything had changed.
When the Lakers empire crumbled under the weight of ego and money, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sighed, “I feel like the Soviet Union just broke up and there’s a bunch of little republics left. Houston. Minnesota. [Sacramento]. Dallas. Us. Who cares? It was fun to go after [the Lakers] and that’s not there now.”
And maybe that’s the genius of Shaq. When his run of 14 straight All-Star appearances ended a year ago, no one considered the possibility that he’d ever get back again. Suddenly, Dwight Howard was the young Orlando center calling himself Superman. He wore the cape, mugged for the cameras and stole the dunk contest. Shaq showed up in New Orleans to hang out, but the game no longer belonged to him. It felt like little in the NBA did anymore.
The rap in a New York club in late June, when Shaq mocked Kobe’s loss to the Celtics in the Finals, was the beginning of a summer when it felt like O’Neal was sliding out of relevance. He looked small on stage, bitter, and turned Bryant into the sympathetic figure. While Kobe was rehabbing his public persona at the Olympics, Shaq was accused of sending threatening text messages to an estranged girlfriend in Atlanta.
No, it didn’t seem that it would end well for Shaquille O’Neal. It didn’t look like he would get a chance to be the star of stars again in the NBA. Now, the All-Star Game goes to Phoenix and somehow it won’t be Steve Nash welcoming the world. Once more, it’ll be Shaq. Perhaps Jackson and Bryant couldn’t have lived any longer with him in L.A., but looking back they understand now: They owe Shaq everything.
Phil Jackson wouldn’t be a title away from passing Red Auerbach, and, at 30 years old, Kobe wouldn’t be halfway to Jordan’s six titles. It broke David Stern’s heart that they all broke up, but this reunion spares the commissioner from manufacturing that NBA Cares story line for a party weekend. Those three sweethearts will get together again on Valentine’s weekend in Phoenix – Shaq, Kobe and Phil – and one of sports’ greatest serials gets a command performance for old times’ sake.
Edited by magicbalala245, January 30, 2009 - 12:39 PM.