Shaquille O'Neal never really did grow up. Impatient NBA fans waited a generation for him to grow out of his child-like ways and embrace the laser-intensity shown by the likes of Jordan and Bryant. But that never quite happened. Shaq was always one line away from, well, a line. Even when he declared war on Kobe, as he did with his hilarious "Kobe couldn't do it without me" rap in 2008, he couched his pettiness in playfulness:
But as frustrating as Shaq could be, that supposed curse of immaturity was nothing but a blessing around kids. Only a few hours before he delivered that rap in a New York club, Shaq was in Orlando to fulfill a child's Make A Wish. The little boy's name was Alex, and he wanted nothing more than to meet Shaq.
I'm a Make A Wish volunteer, and I happened to be assigned to Alex that day. (I was not working for Yahoo! at the time.) I've heard lots of stories about pro athletes and Make A Wish, and not all of them are pleasant. A few sports heroes show up, take a few pictures, sign an autograph, and leave. And really, that's all they are required to do. After all, the child only wants to meet the star.
Shaq rolled up to an Orlando hotel that Saturday morning in his black tank-like Hummer. ESPN cameras were there to capture the meeting -- Alex was put up at the hotel with his family -- and I figured Diesel would be "on" only when the cameras were.
Shaq emerged from his ride and Alex just about exploded with excitement. A great moment. But then Shaq invited the boy back into his truck and the two started playing video games. The cameras waited outside. I waited outside. The family waited outside. This went on for the better part of an hour.
Then came lunch. And of course there would be no salad for Shaq. He had burgers and fries. When Alex's friends wanted to join -- always an awkward moment because the wish is for the child alone -- Shaq welcomed them. He had his usual jokes, saying the server looked like Tiger Woods (even though the resemblance was such a stretch that the remark was borderline Cablinasianist), and the kids ate it up. He posed for picture after picture. My job was to move things along, but what could I do? Tell Shaq to hurry up?
Next came hoops. Shaq took Alex in his truck to Olympia High School to shoot some buckets. There was a cheesy public address introduction, complete with dry ice -- that was certainly for the cameras -- but then came the "game." Shaq was near the end of his career, and he had his knee issues, but he played, he jumped, he juked, he more than broke a sweat. He lifted Alex up to dunk -- posterizing himself in the process -- and did the same for Alex's friends. The "show" was long over, but the game went on. Then, finally, several hours into the wish, it was time to go.
I've been on a few of these, and the day always ends happily. The child is giddy with his shopping spree or her trip to Disney. But this wish was a bit different. Shaq gave Alex a high five and his Hollywood smile and left -- on his way, it turned out, to slap Kobe silly.
I watched him go and then turned to see Alex, lying under the basket, sobbing.
He didn't want Shaq to go.
Alex's family consoled him and in a few minutes he was running around the gym again. But I was struck by what an impression the giant made on the boy. Shaq can have a way of looking over or through you. But he was locked in on Alex that entire day. And Alex wasn't the least bit scared or shy. It was as if he had always known Shaq -- as if the real-life version of Kazaam was exactly as he thought.
By Monday, everyone in the sports world was asking "Did you hear what Shaq did this weekend?" I thought that an was amusing question. Shaq was being Shaq that weekend: playing the fool and sometimes being a fool. In the harsh eye of the media and the fans, that was not always a good thing. But away from the spotlight, in a child's eyes, that was a gift that would last a lifetime.