With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

14. Shaquille O’Neal
by Lang Whitaker

Look, we all know Shaq isn’t the player he used to be. He was the most powerful, unstoppable force the NBA has ever seen. But years of beating up the opposition, and being beat up by the opposition, have slowed him down: last season he turned in his lowest points and rebounds per game of his career. Still, he averaged 20 and 9 and won a title, which isn’t any small thing. His career may be on the down slope, but 80-percent of Shaq is better than 100-percent of just about anyone else.
When I think of Shaq, I always remember the first time I sat down and interviewed him. It was March of 2001, and even though the Lakers were coming off the first of three championships, the first cracks were starting to show in the Kobe/Shaq relationship. I flew out to L.A., and one afternoon after Lakers practice, I hooked up with Shaq in the Lakers practice gym. There we were alone, just me and Shaq in this huge facility. I started asking him questions, and he spoke so softly that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hear it on the tape. I tried to discreetly nudge the tape recorder closer to Shaq; he noticed and just grabbed it off the table and held it to his mouth for the rest of the interview.

Some of the things he said that day aren’t really relevant anymore, but I think if you read the whole thing you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to talk to Shaq, to be near that supersized, magnetic personality. Love him or hate him, he always gives you something to laugh about or think about, which is more than we can say for just about anyone else in the NBA…

TRANSCRIPT: SHAQUILLE O’NEAL
3/27/01

ME: First off, was winning the championship last year everything you thought it would be?

SHAQ: I’d thought about winning a championship for a long time, and it was definitely fun. But afterwards, it was kind of…long. I mean, everybody was calling me and wanting to do photo shoots and articles and stuff. So, it was really a long, short summer. We got done playing in July, and I never had a chance to get my body back under me and let it rest, because I took a beating, shoulder-wise, leg-wise, knee-wise. So the first few weeks I just took off and rested, and then the next thing I knew it was football season, and then training camp was starting. My summer was very, very short.

ME: But it’s got to be worth it, right?

SHAQ: Oh yeah, it was worth it. I just wanted to have my name go down in history as a champion. So many times you hear people say that so-and-so was a great player, but they never got a ring. I just wanted my name, when it’s all said and done, to go down as a champion. And hopefully I can get two or three more.

ME: Now that you’ve got a ring, how did it change your approach for this season?

SHAQ: Well, my motivation is still there. Teams come out hard for us and get pumped up for us, and we’ve let a couple of games slip away. But it’s not like we’re struggling that badly, because we’re still right up there with the other teams while we’re “struggling.” And even though we’ve let a lot of games slip away, the playoffs is when it really counts. I think if we can get some kind of home court advantage, and we can win all our games at home and steal a few on the road, we can get back to being champions, because we know what it takes to get there.

ME: So why have you guys had an off year this season?

SHAQ: It’s a different team this year, and certain guys have a different attitude this year and a different approach to the game. But around playoff time we’re going to have to come around. If not, it’s back to winning 50 or 60 games and going home early. I think we’re going to have to know how to do it.

ME: Has having J.R. Rider around been the distraction eveybody thought it would be?

SHAQ: Not really, because Phil hasn’t been playing him that much. So nobody really knows what’s going on with that. Like I said, this is a different team. Last year we had Glen Rice, A.C. Green, John Salley. This year, we have a lot of younger guys.

ME: The young guys are mainly your reserves.

SHAQ: Yeah, the bench guys. We just have to get the whole thing back on track.

ME: Give me a post-season prediction for this year.

SHAQ: I think if we get home court advantage, we’ll go far in the playoffs. The only team that’s really been able to beat us is us. We match up well with every team out there. It’s just about taking care of the ball and playing good down the stretch. A lot of games that we’ve lost, we gave away ourselves through turnovers and dudes just not playing hard.

ME: Alright, I have to ask you: What the hell is the deal with you and Kobe?

SHAQ: I don’t have a deal. It’s just that I’m the type of player that demands the ball. That’s been my game for 28 years, and I’m not going to change my game now. I don’t think we have a problem. Every great team has a one-two punch.

ME: In the past you’ve characterized the relationship between you and Kobe as that of a big brother and a little brother. Is it still like family?

SHAQ: Yeah, I think it is. It’s just that in order for our team to survive in this game, we have to focus on the team rather than focus on ourselves. We have to use what we have to win games. It’s no secret that I can score any time I want and Kobe can score any time he wants. But we’re not going to win like that all the time. I think both of us should use our talents to get the other guys the ball, to make the game easier for ourselves.

ME: And as the big brother, you feel that part of your job is keeping the rest of the team in line.

SHAQ: Right. I think when people see me yelling at somebody, they think that means that I don’t like that person. But if I didn’t like somebody, the whole world would know, because I would say it. I don’t have to hide behind anyone.

ME: But Shaq, I think the thing that confuses people is that a lot of times you say, “We have guys on this team that do so-and-so,” but you don’t ever call any of your teammates out by name.

SHAQ: True, I don’t call anyone out. I know when I say things, I say them for what they’re worth. I don’t beat around the bush, talking behind anything or anybody. I don’t hold my tongue, for no person or no organization. So if I didn’t…if I do want to say something, fuck it, I’ll say it. Period.

ME: Last year you told SLAM that you demand that your teammates play smart, that you don’t care who scores all the points, as long as everyone’s playing smart. But you said your job was to stay on top of everybody. So how do you regulate on your teammates? Do you do it in private? Do you do it in public?

SHAQ: Sometimes I do it in private, sometimes I do it in public, and sometimes I just try to lead by example. I try to not to embarrass the guys here that much. But you have to know the guys’ personalities. Like, some guys are hard so you can talk to them hard. Some guys ain’t hard so you have to… (HE REACHES OVER AND PATS ME ON THE BACK). But see, I’m hard, and the guys know if they have a problem with me, they can come to me hard.

ME: Have you learned that from Phil, how to deal with different people?

SHAQ: Yeah, Phil’s good at that stuff, because he’s a psychological person. But he’s the general, I’m the drill sergeant, and we all just have to be motivated and go out there and just do it.

ME: It seems like the media’s kind of run with this fued between you and Kobe, but have you and Kobe ever sat down and talked about things?

SHAQ: No, we haven’t really sat down. It’s not about sitting down. I know how to win. I know how to play with the team, but I know that I don’t have to do by myself, and I know that I can’t do everything all by myself. I just think Kobe and I both have to use our talents to get everyone involved. It’s called playing team ball, rather than just trying to do it by yourself all the time, when you don’t have to in the first place.

ME: You and Penny had a contentious break-up, and now it looks like you and Kobe could be headed that way, too. Can you get along with other star players on your team?

SHAQ: I don’t have to get along. I’m the don-dada; they have to get along with me. I’m too big to have to ride in the backseat of anybody’s car. They’ve got to get along with me. Period.

ME: This is your team.

SHAQ: Exactly. They’ve got to get along with me. I don’t have to get along with nobody. They’ve got to get along with me. I’m a team player, and I do the fucking right thing. But I ain’t going to be out there messing around, running up and down the court for fifteen minutes without touching the ball because guys want to do their own thing. We ain’t going to win like that. I don’t have to get along with anybody. They have to get along with me. If they don’t like it, then the system will do what the system has to do. It’s all business. Whatever has to be done will be done.

ME: I might be totally wrong, but this seems to me like Biggie and Tupac. (SHAQ NODS) You’re Biggie, Kobe’s Tupac, and you’re both incredible, but, like them, you guys are going back and forth at each other, and the whole thing might end up blowing up in your face. Are you worried about something like that happening at all?

SHAQ: I’m not worried about anything blowing up, because this is all a business, we all want to have fun, and we try to win. Like I said, if a so-called problem can’t be handled personally, then I don’t have a problem. But things have to be done a certain way — the right way — and I know my way is the right way. I’ve always been a team player. I’ve been averaging 30 points a game, but I’ve always been a team player. And if it ain’t done the right way, the system will handle it. But the system ain’t going to break me. So whatever they want to do, they’ll do.

ME: Looking at your basketball career thus far as a whole, is this where you thought you would be at this point?

SHAQ: I knew I’d have one championship or two, and I should have two. You know, we lost one in Orlando, so I should have two. But I knew I’d have at least one. One thing I didn’t know, I didn’t realize they were going to put me on that top 50 players of all-time list; I didn’t think I’d be on that top 50 list. But now that I look back, I can kind of see why. There’s not really that many big centers that dominate and do what I do.

ME: Right now there’s none.

SHAQ: There used to be some guys similar to me, like Wilt, Bill Russell, Kareem, Bill Walton, but other than that…

ME: But none of those guys had your strength.

SHAQ: Exactly, exactly. And I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t realize that I’d be making this much money. When I was coming out, I was projected to get eight million for 10 years, because back then the money was kind of slow. I think Jon Koncak was the first big guy to make money. Back in high school, I was saying to myself, “If I can make eight million for 10 years, that’s $800,000 a year. I’ll be fine with that.” But then the Larry Johnson contract happened, and then the Derrick Coleman contract happened, so money-wise, my dreams never ranged this far.

ME: One time you told me that you’ve never cashed one of your NBA checks.

SHAQ: No, never. I still haven’t. Never-ever.

ME: You just banking them all?

SHAQ: Yup, banking ’em. I’m still living off my Reebok checks and Pepsi checks, stuff like that.

ME: And Dunk.net’s going under didn’t make you have to go cash in any of those checks, did it?

SHAQ: Well, with Dunk.net, we just broke even. I mean, I made about two or three million, but it wasn’t enough to keep the company going. Those internet stocks and tech companies was hot while they were on, but then they just went away. But we broke even. I made about two or three million cash, but that’s not enough for me.

ME: How do you want to be remembered when you’re through?

SHAQ: I want to be remembered as a dominant center, a dominant player, somebody who was very nice at what he did. I’ll probably be remembered as the last true center, because they don’t breed them like me anymore. A lot of these seven-foot cats come in now and they’re shooting jumpers, playing on the wing. I don’t want to do that. I’ll probably be the last center standing, the last true American center standing.

ME: But there are people coming along. Have you heard about that high school dude Eddy Curry in Chicago that they’re calling Baby Shaq?

SHAQ: I haven’t seen him play. Is he mean? Is he, like, bangin’?

ME: He doesn’t have to be, because he’s in high school and he’s a foot taller than anybody else. But he’s about 6-11 and he weighs about 280, 290. He’s a big boy.

SHAQ: Aww…Can he play?

ME: Yeah.

SHAQ: I mean, does he like banging down low?

ME: Well, I don’t know, but I know he likes being under the basket. He’s doing the diary in SLAM this year. He might come out.

SHAQ: Well I hope he does. Then again, I suggest he doesn’t come out. I suggest he goes to two years of college and learn how to be by himself, because this is a different world. Because I guarantee he don’t know what to do with all that money. I guarantee it. You know, you’ve gotta learn that. You’ve gotta ask questions. So, my suggestion to any high school kid that wants to come out is go for two years of college. The League’s gonna be here. The League ain’t going nowhere. Go to college, and learn how to deal with people, learn how to deal with the girls, learn what you’re going to do with all this money. I would have come out of college after my sophomore year, but I didn’t know shit about money.

ME: That can’t be the only reason you stayed.

SHAQ: Yeah it is, that’s the only reason I stayed. I started taking some business courses, started asking people what to do, and they started telling me what to do. I was just going to put all my money in the bank. See, I bet you these cats don’t know that the banks won’t insure over $200,000.

ME: I mean, I went to college and I didn’t know that. Most people don’t ever need to worry that.

SHAQ: (LAUGHS) Right, right. These kids don’t know that, so they’re probably going to get their $10 million and throw it all in the bank.

ME: If this all ended today, what would you do? Do you need all this drama?

SHAQ: I’d probably be in law enforcement. I’d probably be a sheriff somewhere. That’s what I plan on doing after basketball, some type of law enforcement. I’ll probably run for sheriff in Orlando, maybe attorney general.

ME: You want to do something out in public like that? You don’t want to run and hide from all the media and everything?

SHAQ: Naw, I don’t have a problem. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I can deal with all that.