HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — For all of the rim-rattling slam dunks and silly nicknames, all of the muscle-flexing and look-at-me posing, all of the bragging and boasting and often headline-grabbing feuds, what sticks in my mind about Shaq is the respect and humility he had for a teacher.
When Hakeem Olajuwon competed an amazing run through the 1995 playoffs with a superlative tour de force performance – 32.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game – that culminated in a four-game sweep of his Magic, one might have expected a young Shaq to pout and make excuses.
Instead O’Neal made himself a better player.
All of that fancy footwork that Olajuwon used to move wherever he wanted on the court, many of this spins and scoops that had practically tied him up in knots in that 4-0 whipping, eventually became a part of Shaq’s repertoire.
“Hakeem is the master and in that case the only thing you can do is learn from him,” he said. “It makes no sense to get angry or to act like it didn’t happen. What someone who wants to become a champion does is take the lessons and learns.”
So he did, studying videotapes of Olajuwon’s footwork, turning much of it to his advantage. While critics were raving that he was nothing but a bull in a china shop, the truth is, if you watched close, you would see the growth of the world’s largest ballet dancer.
He won four championships using a lot of what he learned from those early lessons delivered by Olajuwon. And through the years while he often lashed out at teammates and competitors, you never heard anything but praise for the man who schooled him on the biggest stage.
In May of 2006, during the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, I was asked by Olajuwon to get a message to Shaq and have him call. Hakeem the Dream had been watching the playoffs and had a few suggestions.
Following a Miami shootaround, I handed a page out of my notebook to O’Neal that bore a phone number and the name.
“Oh, wow!” Shaq said. “I’ll call right away.”
Later that night, following a big game by him and a big win for the team, I was making my way through the Heat locker room when a large hand landed on my shoulder and turned me around.
“A wise man always listens to words from the master. Thanks,” said Shaq. And he was beaming.