Mark Kreidler

Monday, January 14
Updated: January 15, 2:30 PM ET
NBA still has no answer to Shaq predicament

By Mark Kreidler
Special to

Depending upon which set of truths you wish to embrace, Shaquille O'Neal on Monday either: (a) received his proper comeuppance for going out of control in that melee with the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, (b) should have been suspended for much longer than the three-game hit he'll take, since he basically took a full swing at another player, or (c), cannot be faulted for finally losing it after sustaining another game's worth of ludicrous hack-jobs by opponents who can't figure out any way to stop him that doesn't include a billy club and a can of mace.

Shaquille O'Neal

Tough call. So we'll go instead with our time-tested (d), as follows: Seasons come and seasons go, but the NBA still has no idea what to do with Shaquille O'Neal.

What is obvious at this point is that the rules, as they are currently written, just don't take into account the force of nature that suits up at center for the Lakers. And how could they? They were written for smaller men, in a different time, in a game whose learned hands probably never imagined anyone weighing 340 pounds and having arms the size of Volkswagen Jettas playing in the NBA.

If you took nothing else from Saturday's doings, in fact, you had to come away understanding that the officiating crew had no idea how to apply the rules and account for the O'Neal factor at the same time. Result: Said crew -- Danny Crawford, Michael Smith and Derrick Stafford -- let physicality beget physicality, apparently under the Last Man Standing theory of controlling the lane.

"We continually warned the referees that they were playing too rough," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, and let's stop the tape right there. Regardless of what else Jackson says, regardless of how he tries to justify O'Neal going after Brad Miller and Charles Oakley, this much is true: He did complain in the Bulls game, repeatedly.

But the larger truth is that nobody was listening to Jackson, because the coach can find -- and articulate -- a similar complaint in just about any game that ever includes O'Neal as a player.

The problem is this: In the mere act of moving his cinderblock frame toward the basket and positioning for a shot, O'Neal might technically be committing an offensive contact foul of some kind on nearly every possession. Reasonable officials, mindful of the unenforceability of such, let it slide, just as they let slide a little full-body contact initiated by the poor sap sent out to defend O'Neal.

And O'Neal pushes. And the defender shoves. And the officials watch all this and wonder, because their options are so incredibly bleak: Either they blow the whistle on every exchange down the court, or they let the boys be boys and have the game-night crew pick up the blood afterwards, or they attempt to mete out some bizarre sort of hybrid justice, deciding for themselves -- truly independent of the rules as written -- when the pushing and shoving has crossed an invisible line and danced over into Foul Territory.

Oh, occasionally you'll hear the shrill caw of the pompous, the people who blithely declare, "Call the foul!", as though it were no more complicated than consulting the old leather-bound handbook and making the decision. For years, beginning long before the O'Neal issue swung into view, NBA officials have existed in a netherworld somewhere between the actual rules of the game and their own sense of what constitutes the fair application of those rules. Clearly, that includes bending them. And once you bend, you are inclined to bend some more. And then along comes someone like Shaquille O'Neal, and just how elastic are those rules, anyway?

One could argue that Miller and Oakley were bludgeoning O'Neal all night Saturday, because it's true. It just isn't the whole truth. Another facet of that truth is that O'Neal generally gives as good as he gets, and the NBA as a collective enterprise is still trying to figure out whether it can live with that, and for how long.

"Michael Jordan took a pounding every night," Bulls general manager Jerry Krause told the Chicago Tribune. "Wilt Chamberlain took a pounding every night. Bill Russell took a pounding every night. All the great players ... give and take poundings. That comes with the territory."

Krause's is a sentiment rooted in real history, which is precisely what makes it so useless here. History didn't figure on a player like Shaquille O'Neal. Forget the Jordan Rules. It's 2002: Time for the Shaq Rules to be conceived, written, committed to memory and shared with friends and foes alike. Suggestions welcome.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to

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