Shaq is too good for the NBA’s good

The most dominant force in basketball history squashed his rivals like bugs. Too bad he also squashed the viewers.

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Bummer, man. Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Susan Sarandon and Kirsten Dunst never showed up. Neither did Keith Van Horn, as Kenyon Martin reminded the world after the Los Angeles Lakers weathered the New Jersey Nets’ early fury and coasted to a fourth-period victory and a sweep.

It wasn’t exactly like all of New Jersey lowered the flags to half-mast. The real truth of the matter is that the majority of potential Nets fans scarcely knew of the existence of the team until the New York-based papers, fed up with the Knicks, decided midway through the regular season that the Nets were the NBA’s big story for 2002. In truth, aside from a few dozen louts who hung around to hoot NBA commissioner David Stern as he handed out the post-game trophies, the only fan who seemed truly devastated by the Nets’ loss was the local boy most responsible for it: Shaq himself. O’Neal spent more time talking about revisiting the old neighborhood in Newark and introducing his relatives to Bob Costas than he did talking about going back to L.A.

Nobody seemed to feel particularly awful about the loss, but nobody seemed to feel particularly good about it either. The rest of the Lakers reacted with a kind of laid-back smugness appropriate to a team that has easily won its third straight championship (well, easily once they got to the finals) and knows damn well that this time next year it will be winning its fourth. Only two of the Nets, Martin and Jason Kidd, seemed stressed about the loss, and that’s what led to the post-game ugliness.

There wasn’t anyone who thought the Nets had a chance in this series; the only real question was whether they’d lose in four, five, or, miracle of miracles, six games. Aside from a cluster of missed foul shots in Game 1 — an easily understandable and easily forgivable transgression, as the game was played in Los Angeles — what was particularly frustrating for the Nets was that they really did play almost letter-perfect basketball. And despite that, they not only failed to stop the Lakers, they often failed to get their attention.

L.A. played the entire series almost somnambulistically, lurching through the first three periods with a mechanical calm bordering on indifference, and then awakening in the fourth period in a cold fury to put the game away. It’s ironic, really, that Martin should have dissed his own teammates for showing a lack of emotion, and not just because Game 4 was the only one in which Martin himself showed up.

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In truth, it was the Lakers who played without emotion, ignoring the Nets’ precision backdoor passing on offense and sweeping aside the carefully plotted thickets placed around Shaq on defense. When the Nets played basketball, the Lakers would throw a pass to Shaq and he’d dunk it. That simple. When the Nets played Shaq, the Lakers drew straws and shot threes (hitting 11 of 19 in the final game).

The utter lack of tension in the series is the probable cause of the near-disastrous television ratings for this year’s finals, down more than 10 percent from last year’s L.A.-Philly final, and those ratings weren’t so great, either. Commissioner Stern tried to put on a good face for the camera, but there was no way to disguise the fact that this was not the kind of final series he wanted to see on the day the NBA and NBC parted company. Stern would have loved a rousing seven-game series between two powerhouses. Actually, the Lakers and Sacramento would have been just peachy as the championship series instead of the Lakers and the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league, but that’s the way it goes. The real problem for the league is the shocking drop in regular season ratings, more than a 25-percent drop over the last two seasons, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that viewership is declining because everyone believes that no matter what happens during the regular season, Shaquille O’Neal will show up in the postseason and simply squash every opponent.

I wonder how many people who came to East Rutherford last night who weren’t related to Shaquille O’Neal will remember the evening fondly? Years from now, will people who were there say, “I was around when Shaq proved he was the most dominant force in basketball history”? Will people who weren’t there lie and say they were just to claim a piece of history? Or will they even remember at all? Is it possible to be as over-hyped as Shaquille O’Neal is and still be underrated as a player? Shaq’s performance in the playoffs trashes any notion of a most-valuable-player award that doesn’t rank him No. 1.

O’Neal graciously placated the home folk during the post-game interviews by referring to Jason Kidd as the “real MVP of the regular season” — gracious, that is, until you realize he was slighting his closest rival, Tim Duncan, who did win the award. But Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs put up a heck of a tougher fight against Shaq’s Lakers than did Kidd and the Nets, who, despite a couple of close scores in the series, seemed no closer to beating the Lakers than the Washington Generals did when playing the Harlem Globetrotters. The argument for Jason Kidd’s MVP candidacy was supposed to be “But he was the most valuable player to his team,” but as everyone could clearly see, if you took Shaq away from the Lakers and replaced him with anyone in the league besides Tim Duncan, L.A. would be eminently beatable, Kobe or no Kobe. (A Tim Duncan-led Lakers would have beaten the Nets in five or six games.)

Oh, well, at least now we can all indulge in the “Wait until next year” fantasy that we’ve heard so many other fans invoke. In New Jersey’s case, it might even be better than that. Who’s to say that in a couple of years Shaq might get bored with L.A., get a little homesick and move to Newark?

Since nobody else said it, or seems to want to, I’ll say it: Nothing in Mike Tyson’s boxing career did him as much honor as his manner of leaving it. OK, maybe he will fight again, but no one who watched last Saturday’s fight between Tyson and Lennox Lewis can doubt that Tyson’s career as a big-time boxer is over. Like everyone else, I’ve been calling Tyson a bully for so long that it never occurred to me he had the courage to take the kind of beating he took against Lewis. If he had gone down and out in the fifth round, no one would have blamed him. Joe Frazier did not show greater courage in the Thrilla in Manila against Muhammad Ali.

Now that I’ve said something good about Tyson … Bye, Mike.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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