Mark Kreidler

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Wednesday, March 13
 
The Big Aristotle needs his Big Toe

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Often, when I finish making a far-ranging and remarkably thoughtful presentation to a university class or a local civic club, I am asked a series of far-ranging and remarkably thoughtful questions, the first of which is generally, "The hot dogs they serve in the press box: How can you be sure those are All-Beef wieners?"

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal comes down hard on his big toe so often he can't help but aggravate it.
The answer, of course, is that I am sure of everything, because I have a very important job. And I know that I have a very important job for one simple reason:

There are few people, in any other line of work, who will spend today writing a story about Shaq's big toe.

And make no mistake, it is the story. The Western Conference comes down to Shaq's big toe. If the Big Digit allows the Big Aristotle some big range, then the Lakers are going to win and win and win their way right back into their third straight NBA Finals, after which we will need some updated information about the toe in order to make a clear prediction on a three-peat.

On the other foot, if that pre-arthritic toe gives way under the constant torque and pressure of (just a guess here) 345 pounds landing upon it roughly a zillion times a day, then Shaq goes down, and the Lakers go with him, and we'll be writing an awful lot about the Mavs or the Kings or, heaven help us, San Antonio or Minnesota or kooky Portland.

It isn't fully about Shaquille O'Neal, nor about Kobe Bryant, nor about Zen and the art of ego maintenance, nor about chemistry, nor about HCA (home-court advantage, for those who've never visited a fan-based chat site), nor about uniform colors, nor about Charles Barkley's weltaanschung, nor about who's got the broadcast rights, nor about how this all will ultimately play on "The Man Show."

Nope, you're getting far too complicated.

In the end, it's really all about the toe.

And what we desperately lack at ESPN.com, frankly, are more Toe Touches. I'm thinking here of some sort of ticker device, updated in real time, with the Shaq-watch. The other day in L.A., O'Neal went for 40 points and 13 rebounds in a victory over the New York Knicks, but all anybody wanted to know afterward was how The Toe felt about things: Achy? Bruised? Rebellious?

Then Tuesday, Shaq preceded the Lakers' 107-66 drubbing of Charlotte with the announcement that he'll likely undergo surgery on The Toe after the season. After which he played only 26 minutes, both because of the score and The Toe.

It has been pretty much a season-long venture, the ToeWatch. It's the best story surrounding the Lakers, after all, considering that (1) Shaq and Kobe seem to be getting along, (2) Kobe's spat with Reggie Miller was too mysterious to turn into a really good story and (3) Every time you look up, the Lakers are right there on the heels of the Kings for the West's best record. In other words, status very much quo.

Too, it's real. O'Neal really does have a lousy toe, he really is brutalizing it by coming down on it with the force of his massive body all game, and there really is a sense around the conference that, because of his recurring foot-area maladies, you won't necessarily be seeing Shaq for anything remotely close to ever.

It was telling, Mark Cuban's explanation of that blockbuster Dallas trade with Denver a few weeks ago. After getting more athletic, more explosive and simply deeper, Cuban admitted quite frankly that his team hadn't come any closer to stopping O'Neal in the paint -- but, then, stopping O'Neal wasn't the point, vis a vis the Lakers.

The point? O'Neal won't be around in a few years, Cuban said. And when the big man's feet and toe finally give out on him, the Mavs will be ready and waiting to take over.

All ... about ... the toe.

As with most things sportingly journalistic, Toe is a story of roughly two-thirds claptrap for every one-third truth. O'Neal, for example, pulled that 40-13 routine on the Knicks on the same lousy digit everyone is so concerned about, sinking 15 of 21 field-goal attempts to put him at an even 70 percent from the floor over five games.

A day later, the conversation had turned in exactly the direction you'd anticipate: Sure, Shaq looks OK, but for how long?

A day after that came part of the Big Answer: An 80 percent likelihood of offseason surgery, and, unquestionably, a Land Rover-sized amount of pain and annoyance between now and then.

Will it matter? It simply has to. Asked a couple of days before O'Neal's surgery mention about how the Lakers' center was dealing with things, guard Derek Fisher replied, "I think he's fighting it more, taking himself through what he has to take himself through."

Gonna be a whole lot of fighting goin' on for Shaq over the next three months -- or two months, depending upon how things feel. In the meantime, keep it right here; I expect to see ESPN.com's Toe Carousel up and humming any minute now.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.








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