A Lakers man, but not a Shaq fan
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

I know where my heart should be tonight.

I remember dry, sun-kissed afternoons when I tried to dribble, stop and pop the way Jerry West would; remember hoping my yellow wristbands would provide some secret to balance and precision, some mainline to Clutch.

Without even trying, I can still see Michael Cooper's socks, Bob McAdoo -- McAdoo alone in the corner -- Silk Wilkes' easy launch, and Spencer Haywood's double-jointed fingers. I see Worthy spinning baseline in my sleep, and wake up thinking about the 10-foot-high and tight-as-a-drum rotation the ball had coming off Kareem's fingers.

Shaquille O'Neal
As a Lakers fan, it's nice to see Shaq bring the titles to L.A. ...

I know who I am.

I know my blood isn't red, or even purple, but "Forum-blue" and gold. I know Earvin went for 42, 15 and 7 in Game 6 of the Finals in 1980. Know what games sounded like coming out of the radio in my grandfather's kitchen, and know what it was to feel the crush of tens of thousands, all joyful-crazed and misty-eyed, at the championship rally in '85. I know, too, great as Kobe is, he can be better, a lot better.

I am a Lakers man.

And if you ask, I'll tell you this isn't something you choose, it's something you are. I'll say there's no opting in or out, no day-passes in Lakerland. It's an inheritance and a lifelong commitment, a Corleone sort of thing. And I like it like that. I'm proud to be part of the family, eager to show off my creds to tourists and locals alike.

But today ... today there are twinges and pangs, there is a certain unsettled something in me, a kind of wandering in my soul.

I'm not thinking about history and devotion today, I'm thinking about style and flavor, about my taste for the game.

And the thing is, truth be told, I'm none too fond of muscled put-backs.

I've got no love for lowered shoulders.

Three-hundred-plus-pound rim-rattlers don't impress me much (that's not true -- they impress me -- hell, they scare the bejeezus out of me -- they just don't delight me), and the rush-and-a-push-and-the-land-is-ours approach to working the block doesn't light my fire, either.

Shaquille O'Neal
... but that doesn't mean Shaq is poetry in action when playing.

I've hesitated to admit this, even to myself, but here it is: I can't quite (never have been able to) wrap my head and heart around the Big Fella. I'm a Lakers man, yes, but not a Shaq man.

I take no pleasure in saying so. I know, after three straight titles, it sounds petty and ungrateful. And I swear, I've tried to love the Diesel -- the Diesel is family, after all -- but I can never quite get there.

I've managed to appreciate the yeoman's work the Daddy does, and to feel for him as he struggles at the line, but I've never gotten carried away by him, never reveled in his game (this isn't entirely true, actually -- 'cause there was that alley-oop from Kobe, late in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Blazers that lit me up pretty good, and I do groove on the Big Man's mischievous grin -- but I'm afraid it's mostly true).

I'm a child of middle-class America, I know about repression and avoidance, so like any good dysfunctional family member, I've done my level-best to keep the painful truth of my Shaqapathy hidden from view.

Yao Ming scouting report
You know what to expect from Shaq when you plop down in front of ESPN to watch Friday's tilt. But what kind of game does Yao Ming have?

Page 2's Charley Rosen offers a complete scouting report on the 7-foot-5 rookie, from his lack of lower-body strength to his shooting ability to his highly evolved passing skills.

Concentrate on the uniform, you love the uniform, I tell myself. Think about the team, about tradition. Be who you are. Be a Lakers man and keep your mouth shut.

It works most the time, but I can feel myself straying from the path a bit in advance of tonight's game.

I'm feeling a feeling for clever passes. I'm thinking about up-and-unders and ball fakes.

I'm picturing feet moving, without the ball.

Mid-range jumpers are falling -- turnaround mid-range jumpers, mind you -- and three out of every four free throws, thank you very much, and they're all going down like cool, clear water.

Everything is angles and opportunities -- there's a spirit of invention blowing through the jasmine in my mind. And handle. Yes, there is handle; there is flow and there are skills in, off and of the dribble, as far as the eye can see.

I'm spying the other side of Shaq Mountain and the view is sweet.

I'm thinking about Yao, of course. I'm thinking about a combination of fundamentals and funk that makes Fu look pretty forced. I'm thinking the game is fun and I can't wait to see what's next.

It's a dilemma. My heart -- which ought to be sitting vigil in the Lakers' front yard, just waiting for some poor Houston bum to make the mistake of stepping on the grass, ought to be snapping the reins and bringing the wagons into a full circle to protect my guys, ought to be giving its every beat to the now wickedly improbable four-peat mission -- is divided.

Yao Ming
If only he wore Forum blue and gold ...

On the one hand, I figure I should say, screw Yao; he's just a siren sent to distract me from what matters, from my appointed, lifelong rounds as a member of Lakers Nation. Remember that moment in "Ghostbusters" when the guys try to clear their minds because the evil will take the shape of what ever they think of, and Ray thinks of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, and the gooey bad-ass comes rumbling their way? Well, part of me thinks Yao's sort of like the Stay Puff guy -- he's the manifestation of what I was thinking about, what I was hoping for, when I was deep in the ruts of Shaqapathy. It's my job to put him out of my mind, to resist his charms, because they can only visit danger and destruction upon my Laker house.

On the other hand, I figure, you love what you love, and there ain't no fighting or fixing it. I love the Lakers (and not Shaq so much) and I've also got a major crush on Yao's game. There it is. So be it. Nothing wrong with it. If anything, it sounds like a formula for getting more enjoyment out of the game.

And then I ask myself: What is the game? (Not just tonight's game, but the Game with a capital G.)

Is it a friend-or-foe, inside-or-out thing, a territorial, nationalistic thing, a thing in which you're either for us or agin' us, and if you're for us, we love you and if you're agin' us, you must be put down? And I say, yes, of course it is. I say, what, did you let yourself entertain all this ambivalence about Mark Landsberger or Mitch Kupchak back in the Showtime days? Were their games so all-fire fun and lovely to watch? Of course not, but they were your guys, they were your guys and you were devoted to them. So shut up and rally round the Daddy like you know you should.

But then I think, maybe the Game isn't so brutal and crude as all that. Maybe it's an ideal, a flow, a style. Maybe if you're a true devotee, what you pursue, what you follow is the art of it, wherever that may lead you. So I ask myself, do you follow Kobe and Yao, and T-Mac and Bibby, and KG, AI and MJ, even though they play for different squads, because each of them has, at one time or another, shown you glimmers of the lyrical, the magical essence of hoops played at and beyond the limits of what you imagined was possible. And I say, yes, yes, this is the sort of universalism the Game has at its heart -- when you thrill to these players out beyond your loyalties and affiliations you're actually taking part in the big, brilliant whole of the thing.

So you see, I'm torn. I'm a jumble. I'm the Big Ambivalence.

The NBA has been Shaq's world for the last several years; other centers were just visiting, and couldn't none of them push the Big Fella out of his favorite seat on the couch, or his favorite spot in the lane. Shaq was what Shaq was, and, in a way, since there was no legit alternative to his game out there, I could almost ignore him (I mean respect and appreciate him, definitely, but not focus on him, or focus on the fact that I wasn't feeling him), and still root for the Lakers.

Now there's Yao. Now it's different. What is and what can be are going heads-up now. Two very different styles in a fight for the soul of the league and the heart of the game.

In the end, I know Laker-love will trump anything I feel for Yao. But this tilt between him and Shaq, tonight and beyond, is so fresh and full of possibility right now that I'm just going to hang here with it for a while. Tonight, at 6:30 Pacific, my loyal heart and my wayward heart will be going beat-for-beat.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. You can e-mail him at esn@cox.net.



Eric Neel Archive

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Vote: Shaq vs. Yao

Smith: Yao the gentle giant

The great ones: Head to head

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