Posted Jun 4 2011 12:19AM
WINDEMERE, Fla. -- The red carpet and velvet rope stretched from the edge of the garage to the tip of the door that leads into the cavernous hallway that separates the Shaq-state from the home Shaq-nasium that would make some college coaches envious.
And it was on that gymnasium floor that the round tables were set up, tablecloths, fine china and floral arrangements adorning each table, where O'Neal would celebrate those who accepted his invitation to celebrate those who celebrated him during his storied NBA career.
Hours before the crowd arrived, though, O'Neal sat at the counter in his gourmet kitchen, trading jokes with family and friends, business confidants, away from the spotlight he has relished for so long.
And it was here, in the few minutes he had without the lights, cameras and action that would dominate the day, that O'Neal was able to reveal a true glimpse of the man that has been a larger-than-life myth for much of his public life.
Sure, he joked and smiled and danced and clowned for the cameras later. And as always, few do that better than this 7-foot, 300-plus pound comic behemoth. But before then, before O'Neal donned the fresh, grey, three-piece suit with the pink tie for the cameras, there was a totally different vibe, something much more organic. It was just O'Neal, lounging in sweats, a white t-shirt and house shoes the size of cookie sheets, and his best friend of the past 19 years, NBA TV's Dennis Scott, huddled up like schoolboys hanging at each other's house, the genuine article was on display.
"Can you believe it's been 19 years?" Scott said tapping his massive hands on O'Neal's chest, as if they hadn't spoken about this repeatedly in the days before and hours since O'Neal announced he was hanging up those sneakers the size of skateboards.
"Nineteen years," O'Neal shot back, shaking his head. "It all started here, with me and you, D. Scott. Nineteen years."
As much as Friday's live press conference -- complete with O'Neal's prepared remarks for the cameras and his opening prank that included him acting like he was receiving a call from the Knicks to replace Donnie Walsh as the general manager in Gotham -- was about O'Neal, it was about his family, friends and everyone else that tried to fill up the space hours after those two old friends stole a few private moments together.
For those complaining that O'Neal's timing was off or that this was just another attention-getting move from a man that's had his fair share of such moments over the year, they need only have seen his mother, Lucille Harrison, standing in a crowded kitchen greeting each and every person, man, woman and child, who entered the room with a warm, bear hug and kiss on the cheek.
"I love that picture," a misty-eyed Harrison said while admiring a giant canvass on a kitchen wall, a spectacularly colored capturing of O'Neal planting a surprise kiss on his mother's cheek when both of them were a bit younger. "What a beautiful picture. I just can't believe it's been 19 years already."
The NBA's self-proclaimed Most Dominant Ever rolled out the red carpet for the Best Retirement Party Ever, but he might not have been throwing the party for himself at all.
"I wanted to do this here for my mother and my father, for all my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and friends and everyone else," Shaq said. "They live here. And this is home base for me. This has always been home base for me. And I wanted to treat everybody for the way they've treated me all these years."
O'Neal didn't close any doors on his future, other than a possible return to the game. He threatened to take the job of anyone that dared ask a question. And he made sure to send messages to those who did not attend, TNT's Kenny Smith in particular, that they should fear his next endeavor.
Broadcasting, law enforcement, business interests and his continued educational pursuits are high priorities, he mentioned repeatedly that he'll wrap up work on his doctorate at Barry University in Miami sometime in the fall. But none of those things ranks higher on his list of priorities than his family, specifically his six children that he said he'll still take to "Toys R Us" even though he is currently unemployed.
O'Neal didn't use this forum to grandstand, settle any scores or poke his would-be successors. Instead he praised NBA Commissioner David Stern, Lakers Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, although he did retire his Superman moniker along with all the other assorted nicknames he acquired over the years. This wasn't some vindictive last stand of an aging superstar. It was simply O'Neal saying goodbye to his playing days in the only way he knows how, with a giant dash of style and grace.
"It's a sad, sad day," said Philip Harrison, O'Neal's father, and the only person he spoke of the entire time where you could tell his emotions were getting the better of him. "We started this journey so long ago and to see it end now ... it's a sad day."
Former LSU coach Dale Brown, who sat beside O'Neal as he read his prepared remarks and fielded questions from reporters, sat alone in the living room hours earlier reflecting on his experiences with the entire family.
He tried his best to put into some sort of reasonable context their 26-year journey. It's a tale that began with Brown basically discovering a 13-year-old O'Neal on a military base in Germany, where Harrison was stationed at the time.
"This wonderful family is at the heart of all of this," Brown said. "What great parents. What a great job they've done with Shaquille and all of his siblings. And it's obvious what a great parent Shaquille is to his own children. They should be an example for parents and kids all over this country for the way they've handled this entire process. He's going down as one of the greatest players in the history of the game and it's because of the love and support of all of the people you see here."
O'Neal tried his best to refrain from engaging any of his critics who insist he left titles on the table with his inability to stay in tip-top shape and that nagging free throw problem that plagued him throughout his career.
Then he poked fun at himself, suggesting that if he'd made half of the 5,000 free throws he missed and played in half of the 300 games he missed he might have finished his career No. 2 on the NBA's career scoring list. It was the only regret he would admit to.
But he refused to apologize for spending the last 19 years doing things the way he wanted to, and yes, that includes all the rapping and acting done while becoming one of the NBA's all-time greats.
"My father always told me to be a leader and not a follower," O'Neal said. "I did it my way."
Coming and going.
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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