Shaq's bad rap

The Baltimore Sun

Full disclosure: When the first snippets surfaced of Shaquille O'Neal dogging Kobe Bryant onstage at a New York club, I laughed. The more I heard, the funnier and more absurd it got.

That reaction lasted a couple of minutes. It was just an instinctive reaction, a step ahead of conscious thought. Lots of things are funny in that first moment, right out of someone's mouth, before they're put into real context.

Context such as: Here's a 36-year-old father of six, a four-time NBA champion, past MVP and Olympic gold medalist, future Hall of Famer, marketing icon and prominent public figure, hollering profanely into a mike in front of a room full of people about an ex-teammate he still can't stand, even though he swore years ago they'd patched things up.

Which brought on this reaction:

C'mon, Shaq. Isn't it time you started acting like a grown-up?

It's sad, actually. Especially since in all matters related to Shaq vs. Kobe, I've always had both feet planted firmly in the Shaq camp. Nothing Kobe has done, including this season's MVP award and Finals trip, has changed the opinion here that he's the most selfish athlete in the history of organized team sports. He wrecked the Lakers dynasty. He used Shaq as a human shield when the cops in Colorado came calling that infamous summer (hence, the "rat" reference in Shaq's rap).

And in their dysfunctional relationship, Kobe always was the spoiled, petulant little boy. Shaq wasn't exactly Winston Churchill, but he always had the better argument, the more mature outlook, and - no small factor, especially now - the more genuine personality.

Now, thanks to one night of ill-advised spouting on stage, Shaq has leaped into Kobe's territory - and made Kobe seem sympathetic, a victim of a cruel public verbal spanking.

Even if you put all the elements of that Shaqtacular outburst into perspective - it's not as if he did this on Meet the Press; he was rapping in a club - you still conclude that Shaq put his size 23s way over the line.

If he got a big chuckle out of his inner circle, and vicariously out of all the Kobe haters, the negatives far outweigh that. He should have foreseen them before he ever stepped onto the stage.

And even with that, the negatives that people are already asserting about the NBA and its players and, basically, about every adult black male in this country ("They keep using the N-word! How come nobody lets us use it anymore?") are submerged by a more fundamental point:

Doesn't Shaq care how it makes him look?

One of his larger failures in this case is that he lost sight of the line between being a big kid at heart and acting like one. Being a kid at heart spurs you to do things like dressing like a jockey for a commercial, then at Belmont. It inspires you to host reality TV shows where you exert your charms to help obese kids change their habits. It leads you to yell "Can you dig it?" at a championship rally, fill your house with Superman stuff, call yourself "The Big Aristotle" and joke about how "quotacious" you are during the Finals.

Acting like a kid ... well, among other things, it leads you to go back on your word. In 2006, Shaq told everybody that he and Kobe had ended their feud and were friends, and were inspired by Bill Russell and the recent Martin Luther King holiday.

Inspirational then, cringe-inducing now.

Most, if not all, signs of Shaq's reaching a new level of maturity while retaining his youthful gleam have been all but erased. So has a chunk of his credibility. Why not just keep publicly despising Kobe instead of putting on that charade?

While we're at it ... did we mention Shaq is 36 years old? Not 17, down in the basement with his buddies and a turntable, but an NBA elder who wants others to follow his lead?

Shaq has had his immature moments, without question. But on balance, Shaq has walked the line as well as it can be walked, and he has been rewarded for it. That's now at risk, all because he forgot where that line was.

The NBA won't come off well in this, because it never does. The league, however, shouldn't step in, nor should the Phoenix Suns. This is something that, all things considered, should be worked out between Shaq and Kobe.

More important, it should be worked out between Shaq the Child and Shaq the Grown-Up.

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