Shaq In The Battle Again

Last season Shaquille O'Neal kept to a well-established routine. In the evening, after recovering from the rigors of practice, he would head over to a local high-school gym and work on free-throw shooting, his Achilles' heel. Later, the Lakers' superstar center would plunge into the social whirl at a local hot spot or a celebrity party. And in the morning, Shaq would flip on a Jay-Z CD and make a phone call to the NBA brass to gripe about the beatings he was taking on the court and how the refs weren't doing anything about it.

This season, only the free-throw ritual remains. Shaq has cut back on the carousing, the result of an ultimatum by new coach Phil Jackson to what was one of the league's most notorious party teams. And he's halted the phone calls, too. "I'd call, but nothing ever changed," says O'Neal, who is still just 28 and in his eighth pro season. "So I'm serving notice. I don't want trouble in the playoffs. But I'm going to come at people the way they come at me, and it ain't going to be pretty."

The playoffs won't be pretty, but Shaq has been serving notice on the NBA this entire season, leading the Lakers to the league's best record and making them the favorite in the postseason championship chase that begins this weekend. O'Neal has complemented his always prodigious scoring talent with some heretofore unrevealed passing skills. And freed from nagging abdominal strains that have plagued him throughout his first three years in L.A, he has rebounded and blocked shots with renewed ferocity. Indeed Shaq, a lock for his first MVP award, has lived up to the plaque over his locker--IDGAF, or, in modest Shaq-speak, "I Dominate the Game Always and Forever."

It is an interesting choice of slogans, given that Jackson, when he took the Laker helm last summer, suggested that O'Neal had lost some of his dominance. Yet the coach does not attribute the change to any of his own innovations, like the triangle offense, or his Zen techniques. "It's Shaq's desire to do all the things a complete player does," Jackson says. Shaq, though, credits his coach. "I always had the complete game, but other coaches told me to just shoot, shoot and shoot so I took the f-----g shot when I got it," he says. "Now with Phil's system it allows me to pass, block, dunk--all those things that get me on the highlight reel on ESPN."

In truth, previous coaches simply didn't have the clout to tell their 7-foot-1-inch, 315-pound star to do anything he didn't feel like doing. Jackson, with the credibility that comes with six championship rings, had clout to spare. And his no-nonsense style resonated with Shaq, reminding him of his stepfather, a career military man. "I needed to be challenged," says O'Neal. "Phil immediately told me what was wrong with my game and what to do to change it. That's what I always had at home. My stepfather didn't want to hear any backtalk about why something wasn't done. You just made sure it was done or suffered the consequences."

It was O'Neal who lobbied Laker management hardest to hire Jackson. Still, Shaq was nervous about the change. He traveled to Jackson's Montana ranch before the season to explain his concerns about Shaq's role and to allay his anxieties that the former Chicago Bulls coach might favor his high-leaping teammate Kobe Bryant, whose style was more reminiscent of Michael Jordan's. But in his very first team meetings, Jackson dealt with the Shaq-Kobe divide. There would be one team leader in the Laker locker room--the coach. On the court, though, Shaq was the man, the pivotal figure at both ends of the floor. "I never had a problem with Kobe, but because of the frustrations of the last two seasons, we would blame others and sometimes each other for things that happened," says O'Neal. "But I'm a student of the game so I know any great team needs a one-two punch. Kobe and I are that duo."

Shaq is enough of a student of the game to also know that this year's version of the Lakers will ultimately be judged by its playoff performance. And so, too, will O'Neal. All three years in L.A. Shaq has endured ignominious playoff flops, twice losing in 4-0 sweeps. And when he did reach the NBA finals playing with the Orlando Magic, O'Neal shot free throws at a mortifying .393 rate as Orlando also was swept 4-0. He feels the weight of all that history. "I'm tired of other people winning when we should have," he says. "I want the 'bling-bling' [hip-hop parlance for a big, sparkly ring] and not to be home before the end of June."

However much O'Neal has matured on the court, off it he still loves kids' movies, videogames and Big Macs. He maintains an undiminished delight in his celebrity and, at times, still seems amazed by the glamorous circle in which he hangs. His birthday bash last month at the ultrahip Voodoo Lounge brought out a who's who of black Hollywood, including Jamie Foxx, Dr. Dre, Vivica A. Fox and Snoop Dogg.

It's always showtime for Shaq: he wore a shimmering purple suit and bowler hat to a recent game while sidelined with an ankle sprain. The only time he defied Jackson was when the coach planned a "Secret Santa" grab bag, with each player instructed to give his designated teammate a small--less than $100--Christmas gift. O'Neal gave point guard Derek Fisher a $5,000 diamond Rolex. "I knew he wasn't going to give something for 100 bucks," laughs Fisher. "He doesn't believe in cheap."

Shaq also doesn't believe he's gotten his due. He is sensitive to slights and, at times, frets about a perceived succession of them during his career. He says the NBA doesn't know how to market the really big guys, guys like him with size 22-feet. ("Nobody knows how to treat a big man, particularly one who can break-dance.") He resents that the league has always looked for its "next Michael" in smaller, "pretty boys" like Grant Hill. ("You don't hardly hear about Grant Hill anymore.") Though fans now chant "MVP" at Shaq, he still puzzles over why they at first seemed to favor Kobe over him. ("Kobe caught a wave. He can show flashes of greatness.")

In fact, O'Neal arrived in the league with great fanfare. An early ad compared him to immortals like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before he had played a full season of NBA ball. But as Jordan increasingly dominated the game, other stars were pushed to the periphery. Shaq no longer has contracts with either of his two original, big sponsors, Pepsi and Reebok. He has soured on "the whole marketing thing" and insists he doesn't want new endorsement deals, even if there's renewed interest after his stellar season. "I'll just play with the chips I have," he says. O'Neal's rap music and movies didn't fare well or endear him to fans. They didn't view Shaq as he saw himself--as something of a Renaissance man--but rather as someone whose heart wasn't totally in the game.

Though O'Neal still has serious rap and acting aspirations, no one can doubt he is playing with great heart. And Jackson believes he has instilled in the team "a certain amount of pride that makes them want to get to the next level." But to get to the very top, Shaq must now demonstrate that he can DGAF in the playoffs, too.