ATLANTA -- Shaquille O'Neal was 12 years old when the Celtics won the 1984 NBA championship. He wasn't a student of the game at the time, but if pressed to identify some of Boston's greats, he might have been able to conjure up the names of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
But Gregory Fuller Kite?
"Never," Shaq says.
He hadn't heard of the guy who averaged a mere 1.9 points and 1.8 rebounds as a rookie backup center for Boston's title team that season.
"He was telling me stuff on how to be a center," says Shaq, "but in my mind I was already the best center. So I kinda disrespected him one day."
Dennis Scott recoiled as O'Neal callously dismissed Kite, who by then had established himself as a limited but physical, tough-minded player, a valuable addition to any locker room. (Think Kendrick Perkins without the scowl.)
"Kite knows what he's talking about," Scott scolded Shaq.
"So I'm like, 'How? He can't play. I'm killin' this guy in practice every day,' " Shaq says.
Scott's retort was succinct: Kite's a champion and you aren't. Kite played hard, fouled hard and always had his teammates' back.
"Big Shot Bob saved my ass in two championships out of three with his shooting. I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He doesn't have big numbers but he hit a lot of important shots, shots that if he doesn't make, a lot of guys can't claim, 'I have a ring.'" Shaq on Robert Horry
"He was one of those pieces that fit perfectly for a championship team," Shaq said. "So I said, 'You know what? I better start listening.' "
Here's why the interaction between Shaq and Kite is noteworthy. When Kite won that championship with Boston in 1984, it ignited a remarkable streak of now 32 consecutive years in which the team that went on to win the NBA title had a former teammate of Shaquille O'Neal on it.
It's a startling testament to his longevity and his impact on the game.
In 30 of those 31 seasons, the player was on the Finals roster and hoisted the trophy. The outlier is Sasha Pavlovic, who began the 2010-11 season with the Dallas Mavericks (who would go on to win it all) but finished that season in Boston alongside the Big Aristotle.
"I remember Sasha," Shaq says. "He was a hell of a shooter. I remember we had a guy from Croatia who was helping me with my game. I went 11-for-11 from the line so I started calling myself Shaquille O'Nealovic, because all the 'vics' could shoot."
The Six Degrees of Shaq extends to 32 consecutive seasons with these Finals. Golden State's playoff roster includes Leandro Barbosa, Shaq's former teammate in Phoenix. If Cleveland wins, it will no doubt be due to the considerable talents of LeBron James, whom Shaq played with in Cleveland in 2009-10. (Perkins, also with the Cavs, played with Shaq on the Celtics in 2010-11).
Shaq says LeBron is unfairly compared to Michael Jordan, and contends if James leads the Cavs to a title, it will be one of the "top five greatest sports stories in history."
"If we're going to compare him to somebody, let's compare him to Magic," Shaq says. "Six-foot-nine guy who keeps everyone involved."
Shaq has few regrets about his NBA career, but one, he says, is that he didn't win a championship with James in Cleveland. Had he been two years younger, Shaq figures, it would have happened. His one season in Cleveland, the Cavs won 61 games but were eliminated by Boston in the 2010 playoffs.
"I blame Big Baby [Glen Davis]," Shaq says. "We were first in the East, goin' good, playing the Celtics. I'm killing Big Baby, and he hack-a-Shaq's me and breaks my thumb."
The injury, which occurred in late February, required surgery and sidelined O'Neal for the remainder of the regular season. When he returned for the playoffs, he was wearing a bulky cast that limited his effectiveness.
"I came back heavier, not in great basketball shape," Shaq admits. "I don't like 'what ifs.' But if I hadn't gotten hurt, I think we could have won it."
Shaq says James has refined his game and his leadership skills since he played alongside him, but even in 2010 displayed uncommon maturity for a young player under tremendous pressure.
"I was very impressed a kid that young had everything under control," Shaq says. "He had so much knowledge of the game, and he played the right way.
"I never saw him take more than three bad shots in a row. Once in a while he'd come down and do a heat check, but when you're the man, you can do that.
"Then after that he'd say, 'All right, I'm off. Let me kick it to Booby [Gibson] and see what he's doin.' We won a lot of games that way."
Shaq won three championships with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Kobe later kept the Six Degrees of Shaq string intact by winning two subsequent titles without him in '09 and '10. The pair were notorious for their public rifts that Shaq now claims were overblown and often orchestrated. Former Laker Robert Horry recently said that coach Phil Jackson purposely created the tension between the two young superstars as a way of motivating them.
"Phil never stepped in," Shaq notes. "He never said a word. He'd watch me say, 'Oh, I'm outta shape, Kobe? Watch me get 40 tonight.' And then, Kobe saying, 'You think I'm shooting too much, Shaq? OK, well, watch these nine assists.' "
Now that Shaq is retired and Bryant is nearing the end of his career, their interactions are exceedingly cordial, and O'Neil insists he has no remorse regarding their complicated relationship.
"One of my favorite shows on TV is 'Where Are They Now,' " Shaq says. "I was sick when I heard the family from 'The Brady Bunch' had beef. That hurt my heart.
"I was sick when I heard John Lennon and Paul McCartney had beef with the Beatles. But if you look at their success rate, that's what it's about. 'The Brady Bunch' is going to be remembered for Jan and Marcia.
"And Kobe and I are going to be remembered for winning rings."
Many teammates who have generated the ripples of the Shaq Effect went on to win their rings after they left him, including former Cavs second-round pick Danny Green, who was a dutiful rookie in Cleveland, carrying the bags and picking up the Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
"Good kid, but I never saw him hit a shot in practice or a game," Shaq says. "Ever. Then a couple of years later, you see this guy and he's breaking NBA records.
"When I first started watching Steph Curry, I was like, 'That's luck.' This kid is dribbling between his legs, falling out of bounds and throwing it up and he doesn't hold his follow-through and it's going in. He looks 10 years old, but I'm watching the highlights and he's still doing it in the middle of the season, past the All-Star Game, into the playoffs and then you have to say, 'It's nothing to do with luck. It's skill.'" Shaq on Steph Curry
"I used to tell him when he was in Cleveland, 'When you shoot it, just leave it.' If you look at the makes he has now, you can see [the exaggerated follow-through]."
"I hate Danny Green,'' Shaq laughs. "I'm pissed at Boris Diaw, too, for the same reason."
Diaw was Shaq's teammate in Phoenix, but it wasn't until he was with the Spurs that his career blossomed.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr is another prominent Shaq teammate who discovered his stroke after leaving the Diesel.
Kerr played alongside Shaq in Orlando during the 1992-93 season. While O'Neal (literally) shattered backboards and was the overwhelming choice as rookie of the year, Kerr was a forgettable reserve who shot a woeful 27 percent from behind the 3-point line.
"This dude couldn't hit a shot," Shaq says. "He'd be wide-open and he couldn't hit anything. And then we get rid of him and he goes to Chicago and he just emerges as a big star."
Shaq recalls watching the 1997 Finals between the Bulls and the Utah Jazz and screeching as Utah doubled Jordan, who kicked it to Kerr, who calmly drilled the 3.
"So now you're gonna hit that?!" Shaq hollered at his TV screen.
Kerr later became O'Neal's general manager with the Phoenix Suns, where Shaq anointed himself The Big Cactus. O'Neal was acquired in the 2007-08 season to help negate Tim Duncan in the playoffs, and although Shaq averaged 15.9 points and 9.2 rebounds against him, the Suns were eliminated in five games. The following season, Shaq submitted respectable numbers (18 points, nine rebounds), but Phoenix missed the postseason and Kerr informed Shaq they were going to trade him.
"Steve Kerr was fabulous," Shaq says. "He was the first GM who was a thousand percent honest with me. He called me one day and said, 'Big fella, this is what we're doing. Salary-cap wise, baddah bing, baddah bing, we've got to move you. You're making too much money.' I really appreciated that."
Shaq has vivid memories of each member of the championship list, but his two favorites, he says, are Horace Grant -- who played with him in Orlando and L.A. and was a trusty, physical sidekick who could hit free throws -- and Horry, who won seven championships with three teams, including Shaq and Kobe's Lakers.
"Big Shot Bob saved my ass in two championships out of three with his shooting,'' Shaq says. "I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He doesn't have big numbers but he hit a lot of important shots, shots that if he doesn't make, a lot of guys can't claim, 'I have a ring.' Including me."
Shaq bristles when pundits discount Horry as someone who was fortunate to be surrounded by superior talent during his championship runs.
"I don't think it's luck when you do it consistently," Shaq retorts. "I'll admit this now: When I first started watching Steph Curry, I was like, 'That's luck.' This kid is dribbling between his legs, falling out of bounds and throwing it up and he doesn't hold his follow-through and it's going in.
"He looks 10 years old, but I'm watching the highlights and he's still doing it in the middle of the season, past the All-Star Game, into the playoffs and then you have to say, 'It's nothing to do with luck. It's skill.' "
In retrospect, O'Neal says, the recipe for championship success is acquiring information, whether it's from former Lakers assistant Bill Bertka, telling him how Wilt and Kareem got it done, or Greg Kite offering tidbits to a rookie big man who wanted to be Superman.
"He [Kite] told me to slow down," Shaq says. "I had a lot of turnovers my rookie year. I'd just get the ball and go real fast, not realizing that if I went to the middle, the double [-team] was coming to the middle, so you can't go that way. Greg told me, 'Get it, wait, boom, the double's coming, hit a cutting Jeff Turner with the pass.' "
Kite stopped playing in 1995. Shaq stopped playing 16 seasons later.
Yet his legacy endures, through a wave of championship teammates who are Six Degrees from Shaq, and have the hardware to prove it.