Wilt Chamberlain stood about 13 feet tall and utterly dominated professional basketball in the 60s. Famously, he used to grouse that, “nobody loved Goliath,” which is kind of ironic, considering that he also used to brag about having screwed over 20,000 women. But, no matter, he had a point.
Personally, being of, um, compact stature, I’ve always hated the big men in basketball. Breathing loudly through their mouths and oozing sweat, they just stand there, waiting for somebody else to be athletic and pass them the ball. When they get it, they turn, hit you in the face with one of their meaty elbows, and then dunk in the least artistic, but most effective way imaginable. Big men, I hate them all.
Except Shaquille O’Neal.
He’s cool, like a modern day Muhammad Ali.
Easily one of the most dominant players of his era, O’Neal has managed to define himself for much more than just basketball. He’s a unique guy, and not just because of his size, but for a whole host of reasons.
He left LSU after three years to pursue the riches of the NBA, and then returned to get his degree, just as he promised his mother he would. Later, he went through the Police Academy in LA and became a reserve cop. His varied activities, apart from basketball and being a parent to six kids, have included professional wrestling, rap music, starring in movies, having over two million followers on Twitter, and a miscellany of TV projects.
His most recent venture is the ABC show “Shaq Vs.” On this series, which harkens back to the kitschy pleasures of 70’s classics like “Battle of the Network Stars” and “The Superstars,” we get to see Shaq compete against world-class athletes in their own sports.
The premise is simple. Each week, under the guidance of some sort of coach, Shaq will do a little bit of training, and then take on, say Michael Phelps or Albert Pujols, in whatever sport they’ve mastered.
This flimsy competition is far from a scientific study, carrying with it the subjective joys of trying to figure out if Spiderman could beat up Dracula. In short, the show’s the realization of some boyish fantasy, having more in common with “play” than with “sport.”
The debut episode featured Shaq taking on Big Ben Roethlisberger, two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Pittsburg Steelers. But before this mighty confrontation, we travel with Shaq as he drives through football country to visit the home of the local hero in suburban Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger, a single guy of 27, lives in a gated mansion, one that looks as generic as any you might see on a typical reality show. As he shows us about, we notice the distinct absence of any personal touches. It feels like a lifeless hotel, one that the quarterback rattles about in, the only traces of his presence being the room dedicated to his trophies, and the massive #7 painted on the floor of his swimming pool. I doubt very much that Roethlisberger is lonely, but there was something kind of melancholy about seeing the single man—now accused of sexual assault— alone in this extravagant temple of masculine accomplishment.
No matter, Roethlisberger doesn’t seem depressed at all, even if he did seem overly sensitive about his thinning and receding hairline. In an effort to disguise this, he combs his hair straight down, giving him a bit of a Frankenstein appearance, or he wears a backwards baseball hat, proving that regardless of our stature, we still have our insecurities.
At any rate, Shaq and Ben get along just fine, playing an amiable game of HORSE in the backyard. Nothing particularly interesting or revealing took place, but it seemed to be a genuine enough encounter in which a couple of guys, sharing the common language of sports, were able to just hangout.
The show is incredibly easy going, and slow moving. We spend the first half of it watching the athletes, often backlit so that we see flecks of dust floating about their mythic glow, undergo a series of interviews and press conferences. It’s pure theatre, as intentionally corny as the hyperbolic Howard Cosell presiding over “Battle of the Network Stars.” Eye candy, in the form of Charissa Thompson, asks puffball questions. Although Shaq gets off a few good ones, this intro is way too long, and the show could easily be cut to a crisp half an hour from its bloated 60 minute running time.
Eventually, our two titans lead a game of touch football, in which they’re the quarterbacks, just like in grade six. They play in a packed high school stadium just outside of Pittsburgh, that looks like something out of “Friday Night Lights.” It’s actually a kind of beautiful setting, the crowd a collection of happy and colorful locals, all smiling and waving signs in the night, as Shaquille brings his one man show to small town America.
Roethlisberger, who survived a motorcycle crash, (not wearing a helmet for extra cool points!), has his own line of Beef Jerky and BBQ sauce, and is the stud QB for a championship team, should be the crowd favorite, but he’s not. Shaq, looking positively heroic in his gold and white uniform, is Shaq, and everybody loves him. Big Ben plays it cool — effecting a relaxed, confident and knowledgeable demeanor that suggests he knows that victory is assured. Watching him, it was clear that he was acting a bit, conscious that all eyes were on him and he was no longer protected by the machinery of professional sport. This was about personality, and Shaq has personality.
At one point, Shaq ran on the field from the sidelines and intercepted a pass, running it back for a completely illegal score. What came to mind while watching this crowd- pleasing moment, was the Harlem Globetrotters. O’Neal manages to marry his astounding athletic gifts with a friendly, almost Vaudevillian improvisation. He brings a sense of play to everything he does, and speaking and thinking in the vernacular of his audience, never holds himself above the rest of us—even when he’s proclaiming his greatness— inviting us into his world, rather than keeping us out.
“Shaq Vs.” is pure Saturday afternoon theatre. It’s a comic book—not even a graphic novel— but it’s entirely amiable, the sort of thing I would have stayed up for when I was 10 years old.
Some consider O’Neil to be a dilettante—a man who rose from little and now has an unquenchable thirst for the money and respect he didn’t have a child—and prefer that he’d confine himself to that which he was so obviously born to do, play basketball.
But both the world and Shaquille O’Neal would be smaller and less interesting if he did so. Shaq, a natural populist who could likely be elected to any office, is compelled to pursue his impulses, whatever they may be. He’s chosen to live large, challenging himself and those around him, to be whatever they want to be.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.