Wednesday night, as I saw the minutes tick away in the third period of Stanley Cup Game 7, and the score continued to escalate into what became a complete rout, I felt my stomach completely sink into disappointment that, as a Jets and Mets fan, I was all too familiar with. I was trying to figure out why I was rooting so hard for Vancouver to win this game. It's true that as a New Yorker, I'm not the biggest fan of Boston.

But regardless of my animosity toward the New England Patriots, the Bruins are an Original Six team, and they have one of the most dedicated hockey fan bases in all of America. I always respect, and root for, fanbases that are truly devoted, who put blood sweat and tears into every game, who understand that rescheduling your wedding to coincide with a major game of your team's is completely reasonable. Fans who endure heartbreak and turmoil and see the sport as something bigger, something that brings a group of people together and stands for a unity of not just a city, but a country. And while I thought about this, I realized that the fans of the Bruins fit most of that description. But they're not running around the streets of Boston celebrating the victory while draped in American flags and belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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Boston didn't need this championship. It has seen every single one of its sports teams win a championship in the past 10 years. I'm sure they loved this Bruins win, and the Bruins deserved it. But was it a necessity like the Red Sox 2004 World Series championship? No. Vancouver needs the Stanley Cup. Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton -- they need it. Because here's what remains in Vancouver after the travesty that was Game 7 of this Stanley Cup Final: Heartbreak, destruction, shame, anger and deafening chants of "Bettman Sucks." Because for Canadians, as long as Bettman continues to Americanize a sport that everyone truly knows belongs to them (and all you have to do is watch reactions in Canada to Crosby's "Golden Goal" in the 2010 Olympics to know that hockey belongs to Canada), the heartbreak and anger will continue to be an inevitability.

Here are the facts: More than half of the population of the entire country of Canada watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night. There were 18.45 million Canadians who watched at least some part of Game 7. Meanwhile 8.54 million Americans tuned into NBC to watch, which is still record-breaking and still impressive. Still -- 111 million Americans watched The Super Bowl (which is still less than half of the population,) 23 million watched The Royal Wedding and 14.3 million watched the 2010 World Series (which was tied for the lowest rated World Series ever). The ratings this year broke records in America -- but it's still hardly a phenomenon. Cut to Canada, where a recent Canadian study says that Canadians put off going to the Emergency Room to watch an important hockey game.

I've spent the two days after Game 7 trying to explain to people why Boston is not happier than a Canadian city would be for this championship. The only way I can effectively illustrate it is to create a fictional situation to try to put Americans into the shoes of Canadians. Let's start with the most American sport we can think of. Baseball. It's America's pastime! Apple pie + Baseball = America.

So let's take a baseball team. The Los Angeles Dodgers, maybe. And now let's say a Canadian commissioner comes into the MLB and takes over. Hypothetical Canadian Commissioner wants to give Canada more love than just the Toronto Blue Jays. So he moves the Dodgers from Los Angeles to ... Edmonton. Then he puts a few more baseball teams in Canada, even though it's a well-known fact that Canadians don't watch baseball, they watch hockey. If their respective city's baseball team wins the World Series, it will be awesome. But they'll forget about it instantly once hockey rolls around. (In fact, with hockey starting and baseball ending at the same time, they might not even watch the World Series -- why would they miss the first few games of the NHL season?)

So say this Hypothetical Commish keeps moving teams to places in Canada that baseball has no right being in-- not even the Northeast where it belongs -- but in ridiculous places, where no one cares about baseball at all 'cause they're way more into college sports. And then, after years of New York Yankee domination and American dominance, all of a sudden the remaining American baseball teams get to the playoffs and lose to one of those many Canadian expansion teams. They lose again. And again. And again. Treasured, beloved American teams like the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs --- they start losing to the Saskatchewan Sasquatches, (where, by the way, it's way too cold to even play baseball) and the Newfoundland Newfies.

Every single year, we Americans will watch our beloved American players win championships on Canadian teams. And soon, our teams, the teams that used to dominate in the country that used to own baseball, will have gone 19 years without winning a championship. Our own country's sport, our own national pastime, our own guys, will become another country's prize. And yeah, there's that devoted group of Blue Jays fans, and that devoted group of Newfie and Sasquatch fans. And yeah, they deserve it and they celebrate as hard as anyone when their team wins that World Series. But in the end, baseball is American's sport. And after a 19-year drought, Americans don't just want to reclaim it as our own. We need to reclaim it as our own.

One of these years, a long-suffering Canadian team will finally get their Cup. And when it happens, and people run the streets draped in Canadian flags and singing the "O Canada" in unity, we'll all understand that it's exactly what they've not only wanted, not only rooted for and hoped for and dreamed of, but exactly what they've needed. And that's why I was rooting so hard for them, and will continue to root for Canadian teams until they can bring the Cup back where it belongs.

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There will be fan riots like those in Vancouver as long as there are fans. The same shared identity that causes tens of thousands to start the wave or wear all white to arenas is what turns groupthink into a mob mentality. The very pride that went into the pre-Game 7 Vancouver Sun headline "Our Team! Our Town! Our Turn!" is what sours into widespread anger when a community is wounded by a Game 7 loss. Vancouver came together to support its team throughout the playoffs, but that also meant the kind of bond that started a chain reaction in the streets Wednesday night.

"The people who have the strongest identification feel the strongest threat," says Xavier psychology professor Christian End, who has studied fan behavior for more than a decade. "When the group fails, that failure reflects upon you and your identity feels threatened. One of the ways fans deal with that threat is through aggression."

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So how to keep riots from starting?

Let's call it the Sam Wyche Strategy. In 1989, in a game against the Seahawks, Bengals fans started throwing beer bottles and debris toward the field in protest of some officiating decisions. Wyche, then coach of the Bengals, grabbed a Riverfront Stadium microphone and said:

"Will the next person that sees ANYBODY throw anything onto this field, point 'em out ... and get 'em out of here -- you don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!"

Bengals fans erupted in cheers, channeling their united anger with officials to their universal hatred of the rival Browns. A crisis (and a penalty) was averted.

Wyche knew the key to stopping mob behavior is to shame the perpetrators. Riots start when one person commits a small, mostly benign act -- say, throwing a snowball -- and those around him or her laugh or cheer. That emboldens the perpetrator or those around him or her to do something more severe. Then the dominoes start falling. "You get that surge of common identity," says End. "And then somebody throws a brick." It's that moment between harmless horseplay and serious violence when the individual can make a big difference.

Wyche stopped the growing tide by encouraging fans to turn on the miscreants. And this Facebook page, where rioters can be separated from the larger group, identified, and maybe prosecuted, is a similar antidote. End even suggests an end-of-game announcement by a player or coach that those who cause trouble are not real fans of the team. And media can help too by writing stories about the consequences of rioting. "A town doesn't get commended for not rioting," says End, pointing out that Miami fans didn't cause any trouble after the Heat lost this week. "Media never tends to follow up six months later with the story on the guy who flipped the car and got prison for it."

If you find yourself in a crowd and behavior turns ugly, the obvious advice is to get out. But if a friend of yours starts acting up, call him on it. Even the sight of a dissenter will calm those nearby. And if a stranger in the vicinity begins to stir up trouble, snap a photo or a video (if you feel safe doing so). That might show him or her that he's not protected by the anonymity of the crowd. Nothing stops mob behavior like isolation.

The worst part about the home team losing a big game is the feeling of shame. But when violence starts, shame might be the best protection a community has.

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The NBA Finals are getting some heat for all the flopping from an unlikely source.

A respected soccer analyst.

"The NBA is just as bad as soccer if not worse for diving or flopping or whatever you want to call it," former U.S. men's soccer player Eric Wynalda tells ThePostGame. "The unfortunate reality is that you will do anything to get an advantage -- to win."

Funny how the definition of "flop" has changed. When American Dick Fosbury perfected a new form of high jumping at the 1968 Summer Olympics, a new sports term was coined: The Fosbury Flop. Its alliteration made it sound so cool, so different. Everyone wanted to do it. A generation later, flopping is among the greatest of sports sins.

Flopping is the act -- or is it the art? -- of falling to the ground with such dramatic flair that a penalty is called on the opponent. LeBron James is only the latest to master it. His falling down act on a drive through the lane in Game 4 of the NBA Finals (replays showed he was never touched) reminded many of his antics in the previous round, when he clutched his face after seemingly being hit by Derrick Rose (replays again showed there was no contact). It's given the legions of LeBron haters another reason to knock him.

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In soccer, such acts are the expected norm. And they often put a stain on the game in its biggest moments. One of many memorable incidents took place in the 2010 World Cup, when Brazil's Kaka was given a red card for hitting Keita of the Ivory Coast in the face. The card knocked Kaka out of Brazil's next game -- a worthy penalty except for one fact: Replays showed (wait for it!) there was no contact.

But NBA flopping has been an issue since before LeBron was even in high school. The most noted hoops floppers played in the 1980s on the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys teams. Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman had no trouble being physical -- and no trouble faking it either.

The rest of the league caught on. In fact, years ago the Mavericks used tapes of Laimbeer to show their players how to do it.

Simply put, everyone's doing it.

In every sport, too. It just looks a bit worse when LeBron does it because unlike any soccer player, The King is a giant of a man who's wilting like Natalie Portman in The Black Swan.

But he's in good company. Last September, the Yankees' Derek Jeter, one of the most respected baseball players of his generation, was caught faking that an inside pitch hit him (it actually hit his bat) in a game against the Rays. Jeter grabbed his hand and doubled over in pain while receiving (alleged) medical treatment. Rays' manager Joe Maddon argued with umpire Lance Barksdale until he was thrown out.

Afterward, Jeter admitted it was all an act.

"He told me to go to first base. I'm not going to tell him I'm not going to first, you know," Jeter said. "It's part of the game. My job is to get on base."

Is it part of the game? Wynalda argues yes.

"Whether you like it or not," he says, "it comes with the territory. It is part of the show, part of the entertainment. It is there, it is part of the discussion that people love to argue about. Any time you get a top guy, he is going to polarize opinion, and people are going to talk about his actions."

Maddon -- even though he was a victim -- actually defended Jeter after the game.

"If our guys had done it, I would have applauded that. It's a great peformance on his part," he said at the time. "Several players are very good at that. And again, I'm not denigrating it. If our guy does it, I'm very happy with that if we end up getting the call."

Leagues have attempted to crack down on it. Soccer, for instance, allows its officials to hand out cards -- even red cards -- if it's determined that a player has taken a dive in an attempt to get a call. This has happened in the Stanley Cup playoffs this very spring.

The reality, however, is that flopping or flailing or diving -- or whatever you want to call it -- is going to be a part of sports until the perpetrators stop. Or retire.

So for all you kids out there: flop until you drop.

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Imagine Tiger and Jack playing in the same era, trading major titles at Augusta, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Or how about Jordan's Bulls and Russell's Celtics battling each other for titles every spring, year in year out? Or what about if Montana's 49ers of the 80's overlapped with Aikman's Cowboys of the 90s?

Here's what you'd get: Men's professional tennis for the past seven years. Arguably the sport's two greatest players of all-time have coexisted in the same era. And this past weekend's French Open Final was no letdown to the legacy.

Since 2004 at Wimbledon, there have been 28 Grand Slam championships. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have combined to win 24 times. Eight of the finals have featured a Federer-Nadal match-up and 25 have included at least one of the two.

Overall, the rivals have met in the finals of 19 different events for a total of 25 head-to-head matches (Nadal leads the series 17-8). Federer has won 16 Grand Slam titles, while Nadal added his tenth with a victory at the French.

This begs the question, "What if the opposing competitor did not exist during the same era?"

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In Federer's case, his all-time record of 16 Grand Slam Championships would be even greater. Nadal has denied Federer seven times in Grand Slam Matches (six finals), including five bouts on Centre Court in Paris. It is not farfetched to assume that Federer would have at least three or four more Grand Slam titles if it were not for the southpaw Nadal wearing him down.

Nadal dethroned Federer as the No. 1 player of the world in August 2008 after Federer held the spot for four and half years since February 2004. Without Nadal, Federer would have cruised to upwards of 20 major titles and even longer reign as the world's No. 1 player. However, with Nadal's competition, Federer was kicked off the top of the podium and lost a year or two of his prime to fatigue.

In Nadal's case, Rafa has lost two finals to Federer (both at Wimbledon), depriving him of a pair of major titles and maybe the best start to a career in tennis history. After defeating Federer on hard court in March 2004 and March 2006, Nadal did not defeat Federer on a surface other than clay again until July 2008 on grass at Wimbledon in a five-set thriller.

It was not until January 2009 that Nadal was finally able to oust Federer again on hard court at the Australian Open. While Nadal has been Federer's kryptonite on clay, Federer has done his best to do the same to Nadal on hard court and grass. Nadal is 12-2 against Federer on clay, but only 5-6 against the Swiss opponent on hard/grass.

There are the naysaysers that question Roger and Rafa's legacy. From time to time, the duo hears the argument that the competition may just be weak in their era.

But that accusation is beyond false. The consistency of Federer and Nadal's rivals has proven that this is not the case. Unlike any other era before them, Federer and Nadal have seen the same common suspects in practically all of their Grand Slam Runs. Players like Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Gael Monfils and Stanislas Wawrinka have all hung around the ATP Top 10 throughout the Federer/Nadal era, but none of them have gained enough steam to slip by both players for a Grand Slam title.

Heck, Andy Roddick, the lone American Top 10 stalwart of the era, is 5-26 against Roger and Rafa. Novak Djokovic has slipped by for two majors and was gaining momentum (43 consecutive victories) before Federer ousted him at last week’s French Open semifinals. For the tenth time in his career, Djokovic was knocked out of a Grand Slam event by either Federer or Nadal, neither of whom prepare to let Djokovic steal the limelight in the second half of their historic rivalry.

Assuming the 25-year-old Nadal continues to dominate the sport in his prime, he should easily pass Pete Sampras' second-place total of 14 Grand Slam titles. The 29-year-old Federer will continue to attempt to increase his record 16 titles as long as he can stay healthy. Either way, it appears that Federer and Nadal will come out of the same era as No. 1 and No. 2 in tennis' most prestigious category: Grand Slam titles. In perspective, it may be the most remarkable statistic in professional sports that two players in the same time period can set records in the game’s defining statistic.

The Lakers and Celtics of the 80's give Federer and Nadal a run for their money, as the two NBA clubs won eight of nine titles from 1980-1988 with three head-to-head finals. However, neither team holds the record for most titles in an era, as the Celtics won 11 championships from 1957-1969 and the Bulls won six titles from 1991-1998. Federer and Nadal will come out together with the most Grand Slam titles in their era and of all-time.

Tennis fans sometimes point to the Björn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry of the early 80's as a similar one to that of Federer and Nadal. However, Björn's 11 and McEnroe's seven major titles, as well as the duo's four Grand Slam finals meetings will be shattered by Federer's and Nadal's final stat lines.

As the elder Federer gears up for his last burst, we will see the final years of the (quietly) greatest era of any sport in athletics history. The sports world may never see the two greatest teams or players of all-time coexist in the same sport in the same era.

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Just about everyone believes the greatest moment in women's soccer happened in the Rose Bowl in 1999, when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt to celebrate her World Cup-winning goal over China.

Just about no one considers Team USA goalie Hope Solo's rant against her coach in 2007 as anything near as admirable.

But the two are a lot more similar than different.

Solo was replaced by '99 star Brianna Scurry for the '07 World Cup semifinal against Brazil. The U.S. got trounced, 4-0, and Solo went off on then-coach Greg Ryan:

"It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is it’s not 2004 anymore. It's not 2004. And it's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can't live by big names. You can’t live in the past. It doesn't matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think."

The outburst went mainstream and Solo became the biggest female villain in sports. She was suspended from the team and flew home on her own dime. The fact that she came back the next year to win Olympic gold in a 1-0 shutout over Brazil seemed to slip under the radar, even though Solo proved herself right.

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Four years later, on the eve of the 2011 World Cup kicking off later this month, ThePostGame asked Solo if the media would have treated her comments differently if they came from a male athlete.

Her reply: "Absolutely. I've known that to be true."

Male athletes throw coaches under the bus all the time. They boast all the time. They call each other out all the time. And how often are they sent home for that? Was LeBron James told to pack his gym bag after bumping Erik Spoelstra in November? Was Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference suspended for chastising teammate Daniel Paille for a questionable hit on a Dallas Stars player in February?

Of course not. Hotheadedness and honesty are part of sports -- unless those sports are played by women. In that case, a player who isn't happy with a decision is stigmatized.

"We needed some change (in 2007)," Solo said Saturday in a phone interview from Niketown in New York City. "People like to keep everything so positive -- like we're the girls next door. We like to do everything together, and all that. Why are we sugarcoating? Just because we're teammates doesn't mean we're all best friends. But that's how women's sport have been portrayed. We're not your girls next door. We have opinions, we have arguments."

In the 24/7 news cycle, sports thrive on the soap opera. Disputes happen, the media dwell on them, the word "chemistry" is thrown around, and then it's time to play the game. Men's sports revel in rifts, but arguments in women's sports are played down. They're dismissed as catty.

Solo apologized to her teammates, and boasting she would have made saves Scurry didn't was not smart. But Solo is a competitor. She worked her entire life to win a World Cup for her country. She felt unfairly deprived of that chance. Of course she was upset. And she should be praised, not reviled, for answering a question honestly. The "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar" shouldn't only apply to positive sentiments. It sure isn't that way on the men's side.

So if Chastain's display of pride became an historic step, Solo’s display of defiance should as well. It's sexist and condescending to think women athletes should be "ladylike." That's a myth that's propagated by (mostly male) media and enabled by a fearful female sports machine. Solo is a refreshing antidote to all that.

"It’s clear that women athletics are pretty far behind in every way," Solo said Saturday. "In terms of facilities, how much we make, everything. It takes time for a sport to grow -- for women's sports to grow. What happened needed to happen -- it was kind of a breakthrough for us."

To her credit, Solo hasn't turned into a wallflower. In 2008, she heard some offensive comments during a Women's Professional Soccer game in Cambridge against the Boston Breakers. She rushed out of Harvard Stadium and tweeted: "To all the boston fans and especially the young kids that I didn’t sign autographs for I'm sorry. I will not stand for an organization who can so blatantly disrespect the athletes that come to play. Perhaps the WPS or Boston themselves can finally take a stance to the profanity, racism and crude remarks that are made by their so called 'fan club' To the true fans, I hope to catch you at the next game. Thanks for your support and love for the game."

Breakers fans blew up, but the club later admitted that profane comments were indeed hurled at the field.

So should Solo have sucked it up, as some said? Should she have been a girl next door?

Last year, after her Atlanta Beat team lost 1-0 to the Washington Freedom, Solo tweeted about a disallowed goal, saying, "Its official, the refs are straight bad. Its clear the league wanted dc in playoffs. I have truly never seen anything like this. Its sad. ... I am done playing in a league where the game is no longer in control of the players."

Ill-advised? Maybe so. But again, this happens all the time in men’s sports. Twitter is kind of a loaded weapon, and angry comments often backfire -- hello, Jay Cutler haters -- but if we're going to praise Tweeters for keeping it real, we should absolutely be consistent when Solo does the same. Let's hope she keeps up the honesty during this year's World Cup -- win or lose. She's the unquestioned starter now, and as in '08, she's vindicated herself with great play.

Brandi Chastain is a household name for only good reasons. Hope Solo is a household name for mostly bad reasons. It shouldn't be that way. Chastain moved women's sports forward by revealing her midriff. Solo moved women's sports forward by showing her guts.

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The best thing about these Stanley Cup Finals is the fan bases. Followers of the Canucks and Bruins don't need to use the "die-hard" adjective because there are no fair-weather supporters of these teams. Boston fans got their hearts ripped out just last year, when their team gave away a 3-0 series lead to the Flyers. Go back further and hear "Oilers" used as a four-letter word. You have to be middle-aged to have any recollection of the glory years of Orr. Canucks fans, meanwhile, don't have glory years. The year 1994 was a dream come true for millions of Rangers fans, but a dream dashed for pretty much anyone in British Columbia.

This year, one of those tried and true fan bases will get its just reward. And almost every follower of the victorious team will be able to say he waited a lifetime for this, and mean it.

But because it's been so long, a lot of fans will find this triumphant moment bittersweet.

I'd like to introduce you to two of these fans. It's a journalistic no-no to write about your friends, but I hope you'll forgive me just this once.

Their names are Chris and Rich. Both are in their 30s. Both have young families. Both are good dads with cool wives. Both are just starting to pass their deep love of hockey to a new generation. Chris is from Massachusetts; his 3-year-old twin boys dressed up as Bruins for Halloween. Rich is from Vancouver; his two-year-old daughter, Juliana, asks her dad if they can watch hockey together. To her father's surprise, it's June, and the answer is yes.

Hockey and family are inseparable to both of these guys, like they are to most of the rest of us. Rich's dad took him to his first Canucks game, at Pacific Coliseum. Chris still drives from his home in Worcester into The Hub with his dad for games.

Family memories make this June special for Rich and Chris, but they also make this moment hard.

Four months ago, as Vancouver tore through the regular season, Rich got some good news: he and his wife Annette were expecting another hockey fan – another girl. He called his dad, Jiri, in Florida, but he was greeted with more news, awful news. His dad had cancer.

Doctors said Rich's dad had only a few months left, which at least gave Rich hope that his dad could live long enough to meet his new granddaughter. Jiri was a tough man – once running the 800 meters in two minutes flat –- and he was no less tough in the face of a challenge like cancer. But less than three weeks later, Rich's dad was gone. He was 60.

Chris' loss was every bit as brutal. His older brother, Sean, with two young children of his own, found himself short of breath late in the summer of 2008. It seemed like a respiratory virus or maybe asthma – nothing out of the ordinary. But it got worse and doctors couldn’t immediately figure out the problem. Sean went to see a doctor and learned he too had a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Sean fought hard and even returned to work in early '09, inspiring the students he taught at the prep school where he taught in New Hampshire. Sean was hilarious and upbeat as he went through chemo. Friends created a tribute page for him, which included messages from Sean's childhood hero, Cam Neely, the British Columbia native who lost both his parents to cancer.

Sean finished the school year, but he passed away that summer. He was 39.

Sean would have loved this playoff run -– and how this Bruins team was built in the mold of the guys he loved from the '80s: Neely, Janney, Bourque.

Jiri would have loved this playoff run -– and how the Canucks pass and control the puck as beautifully as the Czechs always did in his home country.

There are so many stories like this in Boston and Vancouver and everywhere hockey is loved. Rich and Chris are only two of the thousands of people who are full of pride at seeing their teams do so well, but pained to think of all the Aprils and Mays they spent watching the playoffs with their families intact.

A June they imagined since childhood has turned out to be incomplete.

In a few days, one of these great cities will celebrate a well-deserved championship. Everyone in Vancouver or Boston will say it's been a long time coming, but worth all the losing it took to get here. I'll be thrilled for those cities, and those fans. I'll be thrilled for Rich or Chris. I’ll think of all the calls they'll make on the night the Cup is hoisted.

And I'll think of the one call they can't make.

Click here to donate to the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. This column is dedicated to the memory of Mark Giles.

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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.

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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.

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