Shaq Becomes Center of Tension


He carefully sits on a tiny cushioned bench wedged in the corner of Examining Room 6, engulfing the seat with his jeans and T-shirt and sigh.

There is a large chair in the middle of the room for patients, but he wants no part of that.

“I’ll be fine right here,” Shaquille O’Neal says.

This is a different setting for an interview with the Laker center, here at a podiatrist’s office at the UCLA Medical Center.


But then, this is clearly a different Shaq.

In his first extended interview this summer, his soft voice cracks.

“I gotta tell you, I’m pretty scared,” he says.

He says he has spent the last two months of the summer fretting over surgery on his arthritic right big toe, which probably will take place in the next two weeks.

“I can’t sleep some nights thinking about it,” he says. “No offense to anyone, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life walking like Bill Walton.”

He says he understands how many people in town feel he should have had the surgery earlier so he could be ready for the regular season. But he hopes they will understand him.

“We had to get three different opinions because this is my future, my life, we’re talking about,” he says. “Then all three doctors had different opinions. When doctors start fighting, I get nervous.”

Scared? Nervous? Sleepless?

Shaquille O’Neal is asked, what happened to Superman?

He doesn’t pull up his sleeve to show the tattoo. He doesn’t flex his muscles to show the attitude. He doesn’t even smile.

“He ain’t here,” O’Neal says.


The Lakers’ third consecutive title season has been finished for more than two months, but their most valuable player is still waiting for the parade.


As off-seasons go, Shaquille O’Neal’s has been as pleasant as a free throw.

Amid pressure from his coach and criticism from the community, he has undertaken what many feel has been a lackadaisical search for a toe surgeon.

Then Chick Hearn died, and O’Neal didn’t come to the funeral.

Then there was a charity basketball event scheduled in his name in Tampa, Fla., and O’Neal didn’t show because he said he was sick.

On Thursday, a couple of days after he flew to Los Angeles from his off-season home in Orlando, he decided to talk about it all.

We met at the office of Robert Mohr, the podiatrist who will perform the foot surgery.

O’Neal, whose illness has prevented immediate surgery, was scheduled for tests there that he hoped would clear him for the procedure.

During a 30-minute conversation before those tests, he was reflective, remorseful and acutely mortal.

We all wake up one day feeling that way, don’t we? Despite O’Neal’s ability to lift a town on his 7-foot shoulders, this summer the awakening apparently has happened to him.


“I really feel like I’m getting older.... It’s pretty scary,” said O’Neal, 30. “I never want you to see me looking like Patrick Ewing, but I don’t know....”

This being Hollywood, you might think he was acting.

But, um, if you’ve seen his movies, you know O’Neal isn’t exactly a great actor.

“This is my biggest year, our biggest year, and I want to be there for it,” he said. “But when I ask the doctor if surgery will stop the pain, he said it might, and it might not.”

For the first time, O’Neal described the pain that he concealed behind scowls and smirks during the NBA playoffs.

“It was really bad,” he said. “My foot hurt so bad I had no elevation. My stomach and my butt were raw from the medicine I took [Indocin, an anti-inflammatory]. Then I became reliant on that medicine. If I didn’t take it, I would have a horrible game. That’s when it got scary.”

O’Neal said that before many playoff games, he would lie in bed for several hours while getting his foot massaged. He said he also visited an acupuncturist for help.

“Then when none of that helped, and my medicine was making me sick all the time, I knew I was in trouble,” he said.


The adrenaline apparently carried him through the games, where he averaged 36 points, 12 rebounds and 42 minutes while being named most valuable player of the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season.

“But after the games, it hurt like hell,” he said.

Those who watched him limp to his car would agree.

He said the search for an operation began almost immediately, but three opinions later it became mired in understandable confusion.

“This whole thing could have been done faster, but the doctors started fighting,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. It had to be the right thing. I couldn’t take any chances.”

Mohr said given the nature of the situation, O’Neal’s caution was understandable.

“This is a potentially career-influencing decision, and if not properly treated, it could ruin him,” said Mohr, who said he is perplexed by the perception of the problem.

“Everybody thinks it’s his toe, like it’s just a toenail, like he’s a big baby,” Mohr said. “In actuality, it’s not his toe, it’s his foot. It’s the major propulsion joint of his whole foot.”

The official name of the joint, which stretches back from the big toe, is the first metatarsal phalangeal joint.


The official impact is huge.

Said Mohr, who will shave bone spurs during the 45-minute procedure: “The average person doesn’t make their entire livelihood jumping up and down on that joint. But Shaquille does. I can’t think of anything more important for him.”

Mohr confirmed that, while the shaving of spurs might give O’Neal’s toe more motion, it still might not relieve the pain.

“If he has degenerative changes, Mother Nature only gives us one layer of cartilage,” Mohr said. “Maybe he’ll have better motion, but it might be painful motion, and he’ll just have to keep playing through it.”

It was during O’Neal’s search for these answers that Hearn died. Few who attended his funeral will soon forget that Kobe Bryant was there but O’Neal was absent.

On Thursday, O’Neal willingly addressed that.

“I feel terrible I wasn’t at Mr. Hearn’s funeral, terrible, terrible,” he said. “I had a bad personal family problem at home, and couldn’t leave at that time, but I felt terrible.”

He was told that many thought his absence could undermine his leadership position with the team. He cringed.


“I had never turned my back on the Lakers, not once, and not this time,” he said. “I’m not that type of person. Chick was my family, everyone there is my family, and I’ll always be there for them.”

He said he sent hundreds of flowers, and remained home with regret.

“Like I said, I felt terrible about the whole thing,” he said. “Chick is a wonderful person, and I’ll never forget him.”

About his other summer controversy--his failure to show at what was billed as his charity basketball game in Tampa--he was more angry than sad.

“They called it my tournament, but it wasn’t my tournament, I just agreed to go to one of their parties,” O’Neal said. “Then suddenly I look up and the promoter has called it my tournament! When I do something, I do it right, and that tournament had nothing to do with me.”

He said that, if nothing else, the last three months have made him more eager than ever for what is expected to be a landmark run at a fourth championship.

“The first three years were great, but this year is the big one,”he said. “All the criticism and insults I’ve taken over this, I’m coming back with a vengeance you’ve never seen.”


O’Neal said this go-fourth season is important because it would establish Phil Jackson as the best coach of all time while vaulting the Lakers into a class by themselves.

“This year Phil has something to prove, I’ve got something to prove, Kobe has something to prove,” he said. “There is more at stake than in the other years. You will see us play like it.”

As soon, of course, as O’Neal shows up, which still could be in the season’s first couple of weeks.

“No matter what happens, I’ll be there,” O’Neal said.

If nothing else, a worried town can attach that answer to a comforting question.

Has he ever not?

Bill Plaschke can be reached at