LOS ANGELES - Shaquille O’Neal spoke about Yao Ming recently, and none of the media in attendance needed to bleep out any expletives. The setting was a ballroom inside the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
Shaq was in a bubbly mood. You could tell because he spoke at an audible level instead of the usual mumble/whisper with which he uses to torture reporters. He had one of his kids with him. He was dressed nattily.
Seated within a bounce pass of Shaq, the reigning prince of the paint, was Yao Ming, his challenger from Houston via mainland China. The guy who was voted as the starting center for the West team for the second straight year. Last year, the start was controversial and the talk of All-Star weekend, but not this season with Yao's improved play.
So naturally, someone wanted to know if Shaq believed Yao would someday become the most dominant center in the game.
“Most dominant? No,” he replied. “Probably one of the greatest centers? Yeah.”
Boy, he IS in a good mood. For Shaq to say anything about another center that isn’t an outright slam is considered high praise.
“So Yao is a great player and a great scorer. Being dominant means being mean, throwing elbows, talking trash, cursing a lot on TV.”
Shaq has taken a liking to Yao. He has met the kid’s parents and was gracious and complimentary. He has taken him under his wing, sort of; if Shaq does anything to an opponent that doesn’t involve a push, a shove or a slap in the face, it can be then interpreted as a sign of affection.
Yet by mentioning Yao’s perceived weakness — his lack of a mean streak — Shaq has simultaneously issued the upstart a challenge while at the same time reminding everyone that he himself is still the baddest dude on Planet NBA.
Earlier this season, Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said publicly that Yao has to get tougher. It did not fall on deaf ears.
“I think the area that I have improved the most so far is in my assertiveness and aggressiveness,” Yao said Friday through a translator. “But that’s also the area I need to work on the most.”
Shaq has no such problem. When he steps on the basketball court, his sneer is as much a part of his game attire as his high-tops. He wins some battles through intimidation alone. He plays angry.
Yao is working on his scowl, but it’s slow going.
“Shaquille O’Neal is the best,” said Cuttino Mobley, a teammate of Yao’s. “So, of course, it brings out the best in Yao when they play against each other. When you’re Shaq, you get to the point where you carry that killer instinct into every single game. Yao is getting to the point where he knows how important every single game is, how important each game is to the team and the organization. But he’s a great guy. He always has a good spirit about everything.”
That spirit is probably what endears Yao to Shaq and others. After all, he was voted as the starting center on the West squad by fans. But it also is holding him back.
Still, let’s have some perspective here. Yao’s production is up from last year’s rookie season. He is averaging 16.5 points and nine rebounds; last year’s numbers were 13.5 and 8.2.
“He’s matured,” Mobley said of the 23-year-old Yao. “Anytime you have another year of anything, your knowledge, your preparation get better. And Yao’s has. Of course, we can all get better.”
Yet although he is a skyscraper by NBA standards at 7-foot-6, Yao averages only 1.73 blocks per game, good for 17th in the league. By contrast, O’Neal, at 7-1, is eighth with 2.26 blocks. This is where it helps to be ornery.
When Yao came into the NBA before the 2002-03 season, there was intense scrutiny. Pundits demanded an answer to that classic question: “Stiff or star?” In a short time, it became apparent that the man has game. He should be, by all rights, a geeky center. He should be Mark Eaton or Shawn Bradley. Instead, he moves like a swingman. He is graceful in the low post. He is aware of his teammates’ whereabouts, and has a keen sense for the game of basketball.
Now he has the opposite problem. Instead of folks wondering if he’ll eventually become the answer to a trivia question or a hardwood oddity, they’re now asking if he is the heir apparent to Shaq.
“It puts pressure on me,” Yao confessed. “But for them to say that about me is one thing. For me to live up to it is another matter completely.”
Yao is in a relatively serene environment. I say relatively. Recently coach Jeff Van Gundy got into a tiff with his star point guard, Steve Francis, over the player’s whereabouts on Super Bowl Sunday. But that seems to have blown over. The future of the Houston Rockets franchise appears to promise stability and a steady climb toward the elite.
Shaq? He is operating within a triangle, and I don’t mean the offense that made the Chicago Bulls so successful. The Lakers have called off contract negotiations with coach Phil Jackson, so he could walk at year’s end. They don’t know if Kobe Bryant will re-sign with the team or skedaddle to another club, not to mention the issue of whether he’ll be a free man after his trial. And Shaq himself wants an extension, but isn’t so sure he wants one if Phil moves on.
Of those three, Shaq is the one who is debated about the least these days. Yet the presence of the game’s lone superstar center is as critical to the Lakers’ future as Yao’s is to the Rockets.
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