Saturday, August 21, 2010

Shaq/Kobe Feud 2010/2011

"Bill Simmons' Theory: "Why did Shaq sign with the Celtics?"

Notice how that didn't read "Why did the Celtics sign Shaq?"

I went through the seven stages of grief when the Celtics signed Shaq: shock and denial ("No!"); pain and guilt ("No!!!!!!!!!"); anger and bargaining ("NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"); depression, reflection and loneliness ("He's a washed-up coach-killer who couldn't stop a high screen if you allowed him to use a taser and a billy club"); the upward turn (remembering that the Celtics signed him for the minimum, that he's eminently tradable or waivable, and that he was taking Shelden Williams' spot); reconstruction and working through (that he may have been miscast on his two previous teams, and with a bigger/slower/older team like Boston that struggles in the half court, he might be an asset on the low post against certain opponents); and acceptance and hope (that even if only he plays hard versus the three teams against whom he has a grudge -- Miami, Los Angeles and Orlando -- he could end up being a major asset). I finished the whole cycle in less than 24 hours.

Within a week, I was convinced that Shaq would be like Bill Walton with the '86 Celtics: rejuvenated and reborn. That's what fans do. We talk ourselves into things. And truthfully, I do think it was a smart signing for Boston for one reason: the price ($1.3 million). Even at Shaq's advanced age, he can still score down low or get fouled against everyone in the NBA except for maybe four guys. (Name me a Miami player who can keep him away from the rim. You can't.) Of course, you could have said that about Kareem in 1989, or Hakeem in 2002, but those guys had the dignity to retire first.

And that's what bugged me about this. Why would Shaq come back for a measly $1.3 million?

The man has made nearly $300 million just in salaries, not counting endorsements, production deals, movie roles, his reality show that he stole from Steve Nash, his music albums and the money that LSU paid him. He certainly didn't need the money. It's possible he just wanted to finish his career on a high note. After all, he left Orlando on bad terms, then Los Angeles, then Miami, then Phoenix, and Cleveland's 2010 disintegration wasn't uplifting by any means. Shaq's reputation as a negative influence -- within the coaching community, he's despised -- gained steam these past two seasons, breathing new life into theories about why his alliance with Kobe may have self-destructed. (Everyone always blamed Kobe, and yet, in two decades, only Phil Jackson and Pat Riley ever handled Shaq successfully behind the scenes.) By the summer of 2010, no contender would consider him except Boston. And only because the Celtics needed a center. It was a business arrangement of sorts: We need X, you need Y. Let's join forces.

Of the 20 best players ever (not counting LeBron, Duncan or Kobe), only Moses and Shaq got passed around like a used TV in their waning years. Russell, Havlicek, Magic, Bird, West, Baylor and Pettit played for only one team. Jordan, Kareem, Oscar, Hakeem, Doc and Mailman played for two. Wilt and Barkley played for three. Including his two-year ABA stint and his preseason cameo with the '77 Blazers, Moses belonged to 10 franchises from 1974 through 1995, rounding things out with the '93 Bucks (4.5 ppg), '94 Sixers (5.3 ppg) and '95 Spurs (2.9 ppg). It never felt right watching a legendary center pull a Mokeski for one last paycheck, but Moses didn't earn $300 million like Shaq did. This summer should have been a wake-up call for Shaq -- team after team saying "Thanks but no thanks" -- but he kept hitting the snooze button.

If, at any point from 1999 to 2009, you had told me "At some point in his life, nobody will want Shaq, and his choices will either be retiring, playing in Europe or playing for Boston," I never, ever, EVER would have imagined him jeopardizing his relationship with Lakers fans by picking Boston. But that's what he did. He's the biggest chess piece that ever switched sides in the rivalry. Maybe it's not like Red Sox fans bristling after Clemens forced a trade to the '99 Yankees, or even Dylan finding out from Nat that Brandon was dating Kelly … but still, he's going to saunter into Los Angeles wearing a Celtics uniform? The Lakers won't be rushing to retire his number after that one, nor will their fans care. Depending on how well Boston does (and how personally Lakers fans take it), Shaq could morph into the next Clemens, aka The Superstar Who Doesn't Really Belong To Any Team.

(Well, for about three years. Then Lakers fans will feel bad, put their bitterness aside and cheer him during his belated retirement ceremony for six of the 24 minutes.)

You can't even use the argument "The man just wants to win." He's already won four rings. He's a three-time Finals MVP. He banked a title without Kobe in Miami. He doesn't need to chase rings. The man has nothing left to prove.

Or does he?

You might remember the press conference after Game 7 of the 2010 Finals -- or, as it's known in my house, "The Night That Led To Dad Not Speaking To Anyone For Five Days" -- when Kobe couldn't conceal his delight when someone asked what the title meant to him personally, saying "I got one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank."

Everyone laughed. Then Kobe added cryptically, "You guys know how I am. … I don't forget anything."

He's not kidding. A few minutes before, when everyone was celebrating in the Lakers locker room, Kobe let everyone know how much he enjoyed passing Shaq in the ring department. He did it loudly. Boisterously. Euphorically. With a few expletives. I've heard this story a few different ways, but in each version, Kobe sounded a little like Tupac lighting everyone up at the end of "Hit 'Em Up." But "everyone" was Shaq. You know, a little revenge for the "Tell Me How My Ass Taste" rap. And that's fine. I love this stuff. It warms my heart to know that, in an era in which the league's best players would rather join forces than beat one another, two of the best 12 players of all time still despise each other.

Quick tangent: Please don't tell me you thought Shaq and Kobe made up, or that you were snookered by their nauseating "We're friends again!" routine at the 2009 All-Star Game. Come on. Do you realize that their feud has its own Wikipedia page? You forget how much happened between these two. They butted heads constantly during the last two title seasons, and when Kobe sold Shaq out during his initial Colorado police interview in 2003, that was the final straw. It's been a one-upmanship game ever since. Occasionally, the hatred seeps out. Like "Tell Me How My Ass Taste." Like Kobe being unable to restrain his glee after getting his fifth ring.

Here's what Kobe forgot, or even better, here's what Kobe knew: Shaq played for Los Angeles for eight seasons. He worked with people who still work for the Lakers now. The odds of Kobe's "Hit 'Em Up" routine getting back to Shaq, in some form, was between 100 percent and 100 percent.

And I don't think Shaq liked it. At all. Remember, Shaq could have gone to Greece or Italy, pocketed crazy money ($8 million to $10 million easy, tax-free), gained as much weight as he wanted, traveled Europe, dunked on a bunch of inferior opponents, become America's most beloved basketball export and expanded his brand to another part of the world. I can't imagine his business manager or agent advising him any differently. Come on, you already won four rings. Eight months abroad. We'll bang this out. You could weigh 375 pounds. It won't matter. They're gonna love you whatever you do. You'll be the biggest basketball star in the history of Europe. Hell, maybe you'll like it there. You could play until you're 45. Let's try it. Nope.

O'Neal signed with Boston because "when I close my book at the end of the day, it's all about winning and nothing else." This was someone who told a teammate before the final game of his 2009 Suns season -- when they had just been eliminated from playoff contention -- that he "needed to start getting in shape for my reality show." Game 82 and you need to get in shape? Huh? Now you suddenly care about winning titles again? Now you're fine with swallowing your dignity to be a spare part, a minimum guy, an afterthought, someone with no security at all? Just to chase a ring? When you already have four?

My theory: I think Kobe's postgame routine got back to Shaq. I think it pissed him off. I think it got his competitive juices flowing for the first time in years. I think he realized Boston was his best chance to tie Kobe at five. I think he wants this more than anything. I think he shows up next month in surprisingly good shape, and I think we'll be saying in November, "Wow, that Shaq signing may have been a great move by Boston!" And I think this will happen for only one reason: because Shaq hates Kobe and Kobe hates Shaq. Just a theory."

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