Love Shaq: All-Stars miss having fun-loving O’Neal around

The best of the NBA all agreed – it just wasn’t the same without Shaq.

>NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Larger-than-life likenesses of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard – a trilogy of NBA giants – adorn one side of a downtown hotel. They tower over trolleys and tourists on Canal Street along the French Quarter’s fringe.

The mammoth images of the All-Stars are impressive and imposing, yet somehow seem incomplete. Someone, a very big someone, is absent from the monstrous montage – one Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal.

You know, Shaq.

For the first time since announcing his arrival in the league as a rookie by tearing down two backboards, O’Neal aka “The Diesel,” aka “The Big Aristotle,” aka “The Big Daddy,” aka “Wilt Chamberneezy,” aka “The Real Deal,” and recently self-dubbed “The Big Cactus” after being traded to the Phoenix Suns, isn’t an All-Star. His streak of a record-tying 14 straight selections was halted by an injury-plagued first half.

“We miss him,” Denver’s Carmelo Anthony said. “He’s our godfather. It don’t feel right without having him here.”

No, it doesn’t.

Although he’s been seen around the Big Easy, hosting a celebrity-studded party with Saints running back Reggie Bush the other night, O’Neal has kept a low profile – for him – during this weekend’s festivities.

However, O’Neal’s presence looms.

During Friday’s media availability, All-Stars from both conferences talked about O’Neal’s absence, his historic impact, and how despite being in the winter of his playing career he could still carry a team to a title.

And yet what many players focused on was Shaq’s indomitable personality. How he lights up a room or arena wherever he goes. He may be the most loved player of his generation, and once he leaves the game, he will leave a gaping hole unlike any before.

O’Neal will be missed by everyone.

When that day arrives, Allen Iverson was asked who might be able to replace the four-time champion, who will turn 36 in a few weeks.

“I don’t think nobody can fill those shoes,” Iverson said, laughing when he realized he meant that both literally and figuratively. “Those are some big shoes.”

Iverson feels O’Neal is as irreplaceable as a stolen Picasso.

“Everybody wants to play with Shaq,” he said. “Everybody wants to be around Shaq. He’s just a good guy on and off the floor. He’s the best there will ever be at that position. When you talk about Shaq, I think you can put his name with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He’s one of the best who ever lived.”

In the record books, O’Neal’s name rests alongside – and in many cases above – the other great centers in league history. But beyond the statistics, what separates O’Neal from the others may be that no one this side of the Harlem Globetrotters has had such a good time dominating.

Always a class act, he’s also the class clown. At last year’s All-Star game he engaged in a breakdancing contest with Howard and LeBron James, who eventually gave up trying to match the big man’s moves.

“We all wish he was here,” James said.