by Lang Whitaker

There are times when life hands you lemons and expects you to gracefully turn them into lemonade. And then there are times life gives you an entire truck of lemons and violently shoves them down your throat one by one, elbow-deep, as you try and suppress an urge to wretch. Welcome to life in the SLAM Dome at the moment.

To properly tell this story, we need to rewind back a few days, weeks and months, all the way back to the second week of March. We had just finished shipping SLAM issue 108 to the printer, and we sat down to plan out SLAM issue 109. Because of the way SLAM ships and prints and all that, we have to constantly be thinking a few months ahead. For SLAM 109, for instance, we had our story meeting in early March, before the Playoff match-ups had even been decided. The magazine is hitting newsstands as I write this, which means there was about two months between the time we planned it and the time the world saw it.

This is where it might have been helpful for us to have brought in a fortune teller or soothsayer. We knew SLAM 109 would be dropping just as the second round of the Playoffs was starting, so our cover guy needed to be someone on a team we felt confident would still be around. Also, the cover guy needed to be someone who would sell copies. This is an unfortunate reality of what we do here: Yes, our goal is to make money, which means while we can occasionally take a chance with a cover that may (Gilbert Arenas last summer before he blew up huge, Greg Oden in high school) or may not (Sebastian Telfair) pan out, more often than not we need to put guys on the cover that are, gasp!, popular.

Kobe? He was making his run of 50-point games at the time, but nobody felt sure the Lake Show would make round two. The Pistons? We knew they’d play well, but we weren’t sure how a Rip Hamilton or Chauncey Billups cover would sell. LeBron? Did him a few issues back. The Bulls? Maybe, but how many people around the world really know who Luol Deng or Ben Gordon are? Vince Carter? Did him a few issues back. The Spurs? Maybe, but they’re not the most dynamic athletes out there. Dwyane Wade? He was out with a bad shoulder and nobody knew if he would play again this year or not.

This left the Dallas Mavericks, and specifically Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk was being seriously talked about as the League’s MVP, and they were on pace to win close to 70 games. Plus, aside from a Josh Howard feature, we hadn’t done anything to acknowledge their amazing season.

So, Dirk got penciled in for the cover. We also decided to do a Tony Parker feature, to get the Spurs in the magazine. Plus we’d have our usual blowout coverage of the high school all-star games, our SLAM high school All-American teams, a dope old school feature on Johnny Moore (the Spurs pg in the ’80s who led the NBA in assists one season before contracting desert fever and having his career cut short) and a feature on the WNBA one decade in.

But we felt we still needed a little more star power to help move issues. Shaq, anyone? He’d returned from injury and was beasting people, carrying the Wade-less Heat to an 11-4 record in March. Plus a Q&A with Shaq is almost always worth reading, regardless of how well his team’s doing. And at that point in time you could easily argue that Shaq had returned to his dominant form of a few years ago.

I’ve mentioned this before, but part of what I’m doing in my new gig as executive editor of SLAM has been coming up with concepts for the cover. We’ve done over 100 issues of SLAM and the whole “guy holding a basketball and staring at the camera” just feels done, so I’ve been helping us try to flip it a bit. And trying to figure out a way to make Dirk Nowitzki seem cool was killing me.

For some reason I always seem to have better ideas when I’m not trying to think about a solution to a problem. I’ll be in the shower or watching TV or whatever and all of a sudden an idea will pop into my head. On the night of March 20, Ben, Russ and I went to the Nuggets at Nets game in Jersey. After the game we drove back into Manhattan and Ben dropped me off around Times Square. I was going to take the subway home but it was a nice night, so I decided to walk the 40-something blocks uptown to my crib. And about two blocks after I got out of Ben’s car, a thought hit me: Why didn’t we split the covers between Dirk and Shaq? Shaq always sells well, a photo shoot interview with Shaq would probably be great, and we’d be hedging our bet on Dirk — surely between Shaq and Dirk one of them would advance to the second round.

And with maybe the best player from each Conference on the covers, we could do the covers like a competing thing. I still have no idea why I thought of this — I assume it was because 300 and Grindhouse were dropping — but the vibe of Sin City came to mind: gritty, hyper-stylized, black and white, a dark alley, rain, etc.

So, we sent Jake Appleman on the road to catch up with Dirk and I missed the NCAA Championship game to head to Miami and sit down with The Diesel. (Yes, it was Shaq who wanted to buy my iPod.) Both guys sat for long photo shoots and interviews, and our photographer Nic D’Amico, who shot both Dirk and Shaq, totally nailed the whole Sin City thing.

Jake’s going to have more on Dirk later this week, but I can tell you that Shaq was terrific. we were scheduled to have an hour with him, but that quickly stretched into two and then on into three hours. He was funny, engaging, thoughtful, and I tried to talk to him a lot about his life away from basketball. I’ve got a lot of stuff that didn’t fit into the final story which I’ll run later this week, but here’s a quick excerpt from the mag…

ME: Do you ever stop and wonder why your life has happened to you? I mean, why did you turn out to be 7-3? Why did you turn out to be a great athlete and have a sense of humor and have millions of fans, and meanwhile you’re running down criminals and all this crazy stuff?

SHAQ: My life is how I programmed it to be. As a youngster I used to sit there and watch everybody. When you’re building your character, sometimes you can build it from scratch or sometimes you can cheat. I cheated. I took a little bit from everyone. I took a little bit of Ewing, Robinson, Hakeem, Jordan, the smile of Magic, plus my own juvenile delinquency. And there you have me.

SLAM: Do you ever get to spend time alone?

SHAQ: All the time. I’m a loner. Yeah I have kids and a wife and all that, but when I’m on the road I’m in the room watching TV. I’m always alone.

SLAM: It’s interesting to me that you kind of live a life without consequences. You can pretty much say whatever you want or do whatever you want and get away with it for the most part.

SHAQ: I live a life with minimal-slash-drastical consequences. For instance, Tim Hardaway probably felt that way. You know, he said something and now he’s struggling with that. So, I’m smart. However, I’m not going to let the system influence me on what I say. But you have to be smart about certain situations.

ME: Is there anything you’re afraid of?

SHAQ: No.

ME: At all?

SHAQ: No.

ME: What about something like the well being of people you love?

SHAQ: No.

ME: How do you have that self-assurance?

SHAQ: It’s not that I have self-assurance, it’s just that I’m programmed for everything. And then, I’m a believer that what you put into the universe is what happens, so I don’t put nothing negative into the universe. And then if something does happen, my skills that I’m programmed to do will kick in, if you know what I mean. So I’m not going to run around with bulletproof vests. You know what I’m trying to say.

(The picture above came at the end of the photo shoot. I had been standing around when Nic urged me to move in for a photo with Shaq. We were both just standing there when Nic said we should do something. Before I could even move, Shaq karate-chopped me across the chest, hard, and it nearly sent me flying across the underbelly of American Airlines Arena. Nic managed to snap a frame during the chop, which is the picture on the left. I love that picture — the bemused look on Shaq’s face, the stunned look on mine. When I regained my footing I tried to tackle Shaq, which was about like trying to tackle a cement wall. That’s the pic on the right. And if you want to get a sense of just how enormous Shaq really is, recall that I stand about 6-1. And Shaq’s waist is level with my armpits.)

Anyway, on April 18 we sent SLAM 109 away to the printer. Two days later the Playoffs started, and in the blink of a Steven Jackson and Luol Deng, the Heat and Mavs both looked like they were in trouble. When I arrived at work on Monday I tried to sneak past the office of our publisher, Dennis Page, but he spotted me and yelled for me to come into his office. Using many more profanities than I care to repeat, he asked if there was any way the Heat and the Mavs could get knocked out in the first round, rendering our forthcoming covers useless. No way, I assured him. Right? There was no way the Mavs and the Heat could both lose in the first round. That was why we’d done two covers, after all, to cover our butts in case something like that happened.

Well, it happened. SLAM 109 officially hits newsstands a week from today, with two covers featuring guys who are now sitting around watching the Playoffs on TV like the rest of us.

The thing is, I don’t feel too badly about it. Obviously we gambled and we lost, but all told, we still put together an amazing issue. There’s a ton of interesting stories in there, a lot of cool images (we managed to shoot OJ Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose and Kyle Singler together, which took a herculean effort from our photo department). Finally, despite the fact that they’re not playing anymore, the Shaq and Dirk covers each really look phenomenal.

I can accept that we swung for the fences and ended up hitting something like a long foul ball. At least we swung, right? So, I have no beef with the way everything turned out. We did our thing.

Shaq and Dirk just didn’t do theirs.

Thanks a lot, Stephen Jackson.