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Friday March 6, 2009 2:54 PM

Clash Of The Titans

Yao and Shaq sound off on what it means to be a giant in the NBA

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - In a league almost exclusively made up of super-sized men, there remain two who tower above them all: Yao Ming, the Rockets’ 7-6 soft-spoken giant with a heart of gold and Shaquille O’Neal, the loquacious and bodacious man of a thousand self-provided nicknames who has, somewhat incredibly, rediscovered his All-Star form in the desert.

But while their personalities couldn’t be more different, Yao and Shaq will forever be bound together by the jaw-dropping size and skill of their respective physiques. An understanding exists between the two of them that no one else in the league can share; for only the other can perfectly relate to what it means to be a giant among giants, and appreciate the nightly pounding and punishment absorbed as a result.

Interestingly enough, their latest confrontation takes place at a time when both have recently made headlines by voicing their displeasure at what they view as a league-wide double standard. On Wednesday, O’Neal lashed out at Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy after the Magic's head coach accused Shaq of flopping; a charge O'Neal took very seriously given his disdain for the art form which has become a blight on the NBA’s landscape.

Then later that night Yao sounded off in somewhat similar fashion after Houston’s loss to Utah. Tired of feeling as if opponents could get away with mauling him simply because he’s bigger than everyone else, Yao made it known that he considered the officiating to be “unfair.”

All of this is nothing new, of course. Since the days of the great George Mikan, the true giants of the NBA have been forced to deal with the exact same thing. Yao and Shaq both know this. But that doesn’t mean they’ve resigned themselves to simply quietly accept their fate.

“It was put to me by a top NBA guy that they won’t take care of two people, and have 268 complain,” says O’Neal. “Because obviously if there’s 268 people complaining about two 7-foot, 300 pound guys they’re going to give them a little extra. Flopping has become a big concern, but I just take it as a sign of ultimate respect: [Like] ‘I can’t guard you. I’m just going to fall down and cry to the refs.’ And most of the time the refs believe it.”

“It’s always David and Goliath. The little man always gets it. Their thing is, ‘You’re big and strong, you can take it.’ But my point is a pinch feels the same to me as it feels to you. Like I always try to tell the referees: You guys make the rules up, so a foul is a foul. It doesn’t matter if a guy is bigger and stronger. It’s not my fault I ate my Frosted Flakes when I was little, while you ate Wheaties.

“Tonight there aint going to be none of that. It’ll be two powerful guys going at one another.”

Yao says he agrees with Shaq’s statement, but he thinks the Big Cactus is sending a subtle message with his strong words as well.

“I think the way he tried to do it is tell me don’t flop tonight," says Yao while laughing. "He set a trap right there.

“Honestly, I agree. They think the players who are above 300 pounds should be able to handle any hammer, any pressure, any foul, anything.”

Then Yao jokingly suggested his new goal for the future: “My weight can change. I can get down below 300 and see if the rules can be changed.”

But before he looks into Jenny Craig or Atkins, Yao will have his hands full with Shaq; a match-up Houston’s All-Star center says is “never easy.” For his part, the Diesel knows he’s in for a long night, too - just don’t try telling him it’s a one-on-one affair.

“It’s not going to be man-on-man, so don’t even try that,” says O’Neal with an incredulous laugh. “They’re going to double and triple me like everybody else. When I get the ball in the paint, there are going to be three guys there. I rarely get to play [ Yao] one-on-one. When I get the ball, Artest, Scola and Brooks will be down there. But when I play him (on defense), it’s just going to be me down there. So don’t try to make it a Yao versus Shaq thing, when it’s Shaq versus four other guys.

“I’m from the old school, I don’t want no help. If you’re going to roast me, roast me. The last guy who roasted me was Hakeem Olajuwon. So if you want to roast me, roast me, but I don’t want no help, no fronting, no gimmicks, no flopping.”

Then, on a dime and in classic Shaq fashion, O’Neal shifts gears and pays Yao the ultimate respect.

“He’s a great player who’s playing great and I look forward to playing against him. The guy is 7-9. There aint much you can do. You just have to try to make him work on offense and defense. But aint nobody going to stop him. You might block his shot a couple times, but he’s 7-9 with all the skills – inside, outside, you name it. So you just have to make him work. He’s a horse, but I’m a horse, too.”

Yao smiles when told of Shaq’s compliments. “I really feel honored that comes from him,” he says. But what will Yao do when, Shaq’s protestations aside, he actually does find himself one-on-one against O’Neal?

“I have my way to try to stop him,” says Yao with a mischievous grin. “And I have Deke backing me up who has the most experience against him. He gave me a lot of tips.”

Such as?

“Foul him.”

Notice he said foul, not flop. And that brings up a key point: There will be plenty of punishment both given and received by these two bohemoths Friday night. But when the game is over and the bruises subside, the only marks which will remain are those of respect and a common path shared.

Such are the ties that bind.

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