The Importance of Being Shaq

The seven-footer is the wittiest superjock around.

Shaquille O’Neal

Perhaps even suckers for the cheek-pinchable charm of the Red Sox’s David Ortiz will concede that Shaquille O’Neal is the cuddliest superstar athlete of the present day. Once insufferably cocky, he has come to seem endearingly cocky. An elegant physical comedian and a sharp student of Ali’s marvelous mouth, Shaq has learned how to manage his brashness, to make it charismatic and complicated and sometimes self-ironic. Maybe it’s the case that his on-the-court power and determination have an analog in his media presence and his 17 years as an NBA celebrity have constituted one long charm offensive.

Shaq is witty enough to know exactly how goofy he can be, and his emergence as a master of the art of Twitter has sealed the deal of selling his persona. Top posts from the past month include “wasn’t lookin, but randy orton has da sexiest white man butt ive seen next 2 steve nash,” “Holy shit, I’m at the santa monica airport I just saw a lil plane crash, and the guy walk away, dam dam glad he’s ok shit, excuse my words,” and “@ lancearmstrong  ok, yer done wit da tour. i wanna challenge u. last wk aug, 1st wk sept? dm me, good buddy.”

This last regards Shaq’s latest exercise in light entertainment and genial self-hype, Shaq Vs. The show is airing Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET, naturally only on ABC. The network’s long history of jazzy sports programming stretches from the exotic variety pack of the Wide World of Sports to the celebrity field day and reality-show precursor Battle of the Network StarsShaq Vs. combines elements of these with a decathalon, a speculative conversation at a middle-school lunch table, and, in the show’s exuberant cartoonishness, something of ABC’s Laff-A-Lympics. Heavens to hilarity.

Each week, Shaq will concentrate his mind, summon his hammy hubris, hop on a jet with his personal trainer, and take on a Hall of Fame-bound athlete at his or her own game. Shaq will splash with Phelps, swing against Serena, slug with Oscar de la Hoya, and field grounders or something with Albert Pujols. We can only dream that he puts on a bikini and visor when playing in the sandbox of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor.  

In the blazing intro, the announcer submits that the star, in his magnificence, is “straight out of an ancient Greek mythology.” Then—appearing to confirm that he was sculpted by the Titans and of course employing the third person—Shaq announces himself as “the greatest athlete ever formed.” Challenging the viewer to disprove the claim, he adds, “Look it up. Google it.” I did. My search—”greatest athlete ever formed”—did not match any documents. However—and sadly for Shaq—the first basketball player to come up when I tried “greatest athlete ever born” was LeBron James. Other top Google hits today included Usain Bolt, Secretariat, and the great pro-wrestling heel Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig.

In the first installment of Shaq Vs., our guy matches his quarterbacking skills against those of Ben Roethlisberger, two-time Super Bowl champion. Shaq rolls up to Ben’s place in Pittsburgh and leans into the intercom for a bit of vaudeville typical of the show’s cordial trash talk:

Ben (curt): “Who is this?”
Shaq: “Uh, Shaq.”
Ben: “Shaq who?”
Shaq (matter of fact): “Big Shaq.”

Granted entrance to a nouveau-riche mansion of restrained tastelessness, Shaq asks for a tour and introduces a necessary note of humility: “I don’t want to be a fan, but you know I’m a fan. Can I see the hardware please?” Roethlisberger leads him to the trophy room, which looks like a large den, weirdly unfurnished and undecorated. The point of Roethlisberger’s chimney seems to be to have a fireplace to have a mantel to put the trophies on to be contemplated without distraction.

This credential-presenting Cribs moment initiates us into a experience incorporating notes of bromantic clowning, positive role-modeling, work-out footage, and stray observations, small but keen, about football fundamentals. The clips ABC made available feature a scene of Shaq learning how to drop back in the pocket. Not only does he muse on the leg-crossing footwork; he turns it into a dance step somewhat related to the Humpty Dance, a move famously performed by a man wearing Groucho glasses. Shaq, a wit among big superjock lugs, needs no such fake nose to convey a like sense of fun.