Big Hurtle

This was Shaquille O'Neal as he could be and should be, the showman, the focal point, the ringleader. This was more like the man who won this city over, not the man who lost fans as he gained weight.

The fans packing the stands around the practice court at the NBA jam session chanted, "We want Shaq," enticing him to come sign autographs.

When Coach Flip Saunders gathered his Western Conference All-Stars to try some half-court shots, O'Neal kept grabbing basketballs from his teammates and throwing them at the hoop in a series of exaggerated, intentionally awkward attempts -- as if he were doing his interpretation of what would happen if Fred Sanford were picked for a halftime promotion. He kept shooting and missing, and everyone kept laughing.

At the conclusion of the workout, Saunders asked everyone to say "West" on the count of three, but O'Neal didn't let it end there. He brought everyone back to the huddle, made them rap something that sounded like the beginning of LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells," even hopping up in Yao Ming's face to, uh, help translate for the confused-looking giant from China.

O'Neal threw T-shirts and kicked basketballs into the stands as souvenirs.

It was like the not-so-old days.

Remember how O'Neal was master of ceremonies for the victory celebrations from 2000 to 2003? Can you dig it? Remember how Mark Madsen was dancing along to O'Neal's rhymes?

And does anyone remember that O'Neal was the most valuable player in all three of those NBA Finals series?

No athlete who gave the city so much has found himself so out of favor. The fans who come to Staples Center still cheer him, but those who call sports talk radio or sit at their computer keyboards to fire off letters to the sports editor have had it with him.

The letters in Saturday's Times alone called him "lazy," "overpriced," "sullen" and a "hypocrite."

Some even think the Lakers should pursue the once-unthinkable: Trade O'Neal.

Everything's in play right now, though, in a careening Laker season that could be followed by an even crazier off-season when Kobe Bryant explores free agency and Phil Jackson's contract expires.

This weekend, which should feel like a coronation, instead is turning into a vote. People are forming sides, and I've heard from so many Laker fans who want to keep Kobe, fire Phil and ship out Shaq. In other words, become the Orlando Magic. One great swingman, and no shot at a championship.

Stop it right now.

Rather than make the Lakers the Magic, they should make the main Magic a Laker.

Tracy McGrady can opt out of his contract next season. If the Lakers bank on O'Neal at the expense of Bryant, they can then gamble that McGrady would come to the Lakers for a discount in 2005 -- when the Lakers have potential salary-cap space.

McGrady and O'Neal are friends, and they have floated the idea of joining forces.

"I always talk about that with him," McGrady said. "But that's a hypothetical thing. It probably won't even happen. I try not to think about it as much.

"It would be nice, though."

The point that so many Laker fans -- and apparently one Laker himself -- don't get is that so many players around the league dream of playing alongside O'Neal. There's concern within the organization that O'Neal's weight and poor conditioning will lead to even more injuries.

But if Bryant left, don't you think O'Neal would be even more motivated than ever?

In the meantime, the Lakers are also in the championship picture as long as he's on the roster.

No need to hear it from me. And, even though O'Neal has had a lot to say the last couple of days, no need for him to defend himself here. Just listen to a teammate, two All-Stars ... and his wife.

New Orleans Hornet guard Baron Davis was asked what four players he would want on his team if, say, he needed to defeat a team of super-robots on Gilligan's Island. O'Neal was first.

"Shaq is the bomb, dude," said Davis, who also named Kevin Garnett, McGrady and Ray Allen. "Come on, everybody knows Shaq is the bomb. Probably the best center to ever play, most dominating center to ever play."

He's the primary concern of every opponent the Lakers face.

"Your emphasis is always on Shaq," San Antonio Spur forward Tim Duncan said. "Shaq is the premier player in the league. He's the end-all, be-all. They can play well with two or three of the guys there, and one of them's got to be Shaq. You have to start with him and you have to fan out from there."

Laker guard Derek Fisher knows he wouldn't have his three championship rings without O'Neal. He's not even sure whether he'd still be on the Lakers.

"I don't think you can have a guy like him and not use [him] as a focal point," Fisher said. "That doesn't mean he has to score 30 points or that he has to take the most shots. Because he is so dominant, because he passes the ball so well from the post, because he does so many things that change the game, the way a team has to prepare to play us. I think it starts with him. Any team, the goal is kind of inside-out. You don't want to just be a jump-shooting team. Without him, that's what we are."

Without him, the Lakers are 7-8 this season, as opposed to 24-11 when he's in the lineup.

Without him they're just another team, as opposed to a championship contender.

So why is the love and respect for him around the league so difficult to come by at home?

Blame it on Los Angeles. People in this city want now, not then, flash, not function.

O'Neal wants to be liked, wants to be in the spotlight.

"We know he likes the camera," his wife, Shaunie, said. "He's fun. He can't help it."

But O'Neal has increasingly brought more negativity on himself, whether for his conditioning or his words.

Most recently he was suspended by the NBA for cursing and disparaging the officials in a live television interview -- after a victory, no less. He didn't do himself any favors when he explained his actions by calling himself a "31-year-old juvenile delinquent."

It's time to grow up.

The city is there for the taking. It can be forgiving. It has found a way to let Eddie Murphy's career boomerang, managed to keep Arsenio Hall employed.

O'Neal is closer to the end than the beginning now. There's a new sheriff named Yao gunning for him. The fans voted Yao into the All-Star starting lineup ahead of O'Neal, you're almost as likely to find Yao's face as Shaq's on the All-Star billboards around town, and Yao even outdueled him in their matchup Wednesday.

Even O'Neal acknowledges Yao's time as his successor will soon come.

But for now there's still time for O'Neal to live large. He rolled to the Playboy mansion on Friday night, his wife at his side and an entourage running 20 deep behind him as they made a dramatic tour around the tented lawns of the estate.

It's easy to forget that O'Neal already has two more championships than Jerry West did as a player. O'Neal says he wants to get to six, which would give him one more than Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won with the Lakers.

And maybe, just maybe, it would get him the full appreciation he deserves.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.

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