In a season in which he has often regressed toward juvenile behavior, Shaquille O'Neal did the grown-up thing -- the right thing -- Friday night.
He cut a potential controversy short by apologizing for bad-taste remarks he made about Houston Rocket center Yao Ming, the rookie from China.
I cringed last summer when I first saw him launch into a kung-fu movie dialogue (complete with bad lip-syncing) when asked about Yao on the "Best Damn Sports Show Period." But the show almost encouraged him by running a laugh track over it. Our culture continually encourages it by relegating Asians to the same stock roles in movies and television (It reached an all-time low with Long Duk Dong in the John Hughes film "Sixteen Candles").
So Shaq kept at it, recently telling a reporter "Tell Yao Ming, 'ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.' "
Many fifth-graders on the playground think that sort of thing is funny. So did O'Neal.
"At times I try to be a comedian," he said before Friday night's game against Cleveland. "Sometimes I say good jokes, sometimes I say bad jokes. If I hurt anybody's feelings, I apologize."
How can we tell he was serious when he made his apology? Because he actually stood still long enough for a normal interview session with reporters. Another of his childlike maneuvers this season has been to duck the media and shirk any accountability when things have gone wrong (and often even on the good nights)
He has never been a good loser, and he always has taken real and perceived slights extra-personally. But he has reacted gracefully to the news that Yao leads him in fan voting for the Western Conference's All-Star starting center.
He even grabbed me Friday and said: "Make sure you put in there I said congratulations to Yao Ming and his family."
He acted like a man Friday. This shouldn't be celebrated, just duly noted and now the whole thing can be buried.
It had taken on an increased life after a column that appeared in AsianWeek called out Shaq and stirred things up.
It's 100% correct to say that O'Neal was wrong. What shouldn't even be considered for one second is that O'Neal is a racist. In private conversations I've never heard him denigrate anyone on the basis of race.
What makes his comments different from those of John Rocker, for example, was that Rocker implied that New York in general and the No. 7 train in particular were worse places because of foreign-born people and homosexuals.
O'Neal wasn't trying to demean an entire group of people. He was using the stereotype of the group to poke fun at an individual. It was a mistake, the bad decision of an "idiot prankster," as he called himself.
(Sadly, O'Neal hasn't been the only one to rush into the stereotypes. The Miami Heat thought it would be cute to pass out fortune cookies when the Rockets came to town. That's probably the worst idea since my college cafeteria decided to "honor" Martin Luther King by serving black-eyed peas, collard greens and sweet potatoes on his birthday.)
At the Olympics in 1996 and with the regular stream of foreign reporters that comes through the Laker locker room, O'Neal has always been friendly to visitors from other countries. O'Neal said Friday that he has taken time to learn about different cultures and religions, even "Kaballah-ism" (didn't know there was such a thing).
I'm judging him by the sum of all my experiences with him, not merely the perception of these ill-advised remarks
Same goes for O'Neal's friendship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who was a guest at his wedding last month. I can see the e-mails being prepared just at the sight of his name.
It's impossible to accept the anti-Semitic remarks Farrakan has uttered. It's also impossible to ignore the good Farrakhan has done within the African American community. I saw it firsthand when I lived in Washington and went down to the Mall for the Farrakhan-led Million Man March. It was the most positive and uplifting gathering I've ever experienced.
Muhammad Ali had an unpopular ally in Malcolm X during the 1960s. In the cases of Ali and O'Neal, they put their personal knowledge of their friends ahead of the public perception of their association.
For Laker fans, it might be time to do the same thing with O'Neal.