Sunset in Phoenix

Shaquille O'Neal ponders the end of his career and says someboy needs to play some D.


His double-double averages and the memories are all Shaquille O'Neal has left these days. Making what is likely his final appearance in the All-Star game before his hometown fans Sunday, the Big Aristotle, as might be expected, is a little reflective.

“I'm the Shogun of all centers,” O'Neal told me. “I've done the most; any others, the things they've done I invented. When I leave, it'll be because my time is up, not because someone is outplaying me or has done more. The only one who has even come close is Mr. (Tim) Duncan."

For superstar athletes, the strange phenomena of coming face-to-face with your own physical limits, and the end of a brilliant career, can make you boastful and sentimental at the same time.

“I can honestly say that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the best one-two punch ever created,” O'Neal says of his time with the Los Angeles Lakers during with they won three NBA titles. “There’s been a lot of great guard-guard duos like Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, but the greatest little man, big man, one-two punch was Kobe and Shaquille.”

The 2009 All-Star game is probably the last time they will play together, and can you feel the love?

"I always did love Kobe,” O'Neal told ESPN recently. And he explained that his long feud with Bryant was just a strategic ploy. “It was all marketing, baby. We helped you hype it up. I'm the smartest player in the world. I know what I'm doing, brother.” And when it comes to the game itself, who can argue with him? Even now, at 36 and playing for his fourth team, O'Neal continues to reinvent himself. He has had 21 double-double (points and rebounds in double digits) games this season and is making his 15th All-Star appearance.

“The key for me this season has been getting opportunities,” he said. “I can remember a time when I averaged 20-25 shots a game, but when I got here I was in the single-digits. Now they're going through me a little bit more. I’ve always shot a high percentage, so if I continue to take those shots my numbers will always be up there.”

But this new role for Shaq has generated some controversy in the Land of the Sun. After averaging 58 wins a year over the last four seasons, Phoenix has gonr from being one of the League's most explosive teams to one that routinely just walks the ball up the floor. The result is that the Suns find themselves in peril of not making the playoffs.

The team is now fending off rumors that it is it trying to trade 26-year-old All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire. Two-time MVP Steve Nash has called this season “the toughest” of his 12-year career.

And all the distractions have some wondering if what is good for Shaq is bad for the Suns. He thinks they are missing the point. "You just gotta man up," O’Neal said, “It doesn't matter what type of style we play on offense, that's not our problem. You have to want to play defense; whoever your man is you just gotta say, 'he's not getting off.'”