Editor’s Note: Since the IOC is considering a one-year delay of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the thought to ease the pain is to share a few longtime Olympic Memories from my days with USA Basketball.
Dating back to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, we – the people responsible for the PR/Communications and generally running the behind-the-scenes of the USA Basketball Olympic and World Championship teams – divided up responsibility for the players and coaches utilizing a “DRAFT,” complete with “Territorial” (and common sense) picks. For instance, since I was particularly close with former St. John’s Dream Teamer, Chris Mullin, it was a “No Brainer” that I would get Chris.
The system seemed to work, and I remember volunteering to do “all the early morning NBC Sports” interviews, usually meeting Michael Jordan in our hotel lobby/player lounge at the stroke of 6:59:59am for his 7am scheduled interviews for that night’s game. MJ wanted to bang out the interview, then go play golf, so it worked quite nicely.
Placing the ’92 Barcelona Olympics in the rearview, along came 1994 when the NBA agreed to have its players participate in the FIBA World Championship of Basketball in Toronto. Little did I know at the time ….
OLYMPIC MEMORIES: It was the summer of ’94. The draft went quickly. Twelve players to be selected by four PR guys meant three players apiece. I can not remember the No. 1 overall selection, but as the holder of the last pick, I knew who was going to be waiting for me as the draft concluded and that would be Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal, all 7-foot-1, 325-pound plus of him.
I had worked extensively with the Orlando Magic franchise from their inaugural season in 1989 through the memorable 1992 All-Star Weekend (think Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the late, great Dick Enberg’s call of “Oh, My).” … I pushed and tugged and pulled Shaq, the Magic’s No. 1 pick, through the ’92 NBA Draft in Portland and then the ’93 All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake, but as we stood in Chicago and drafted “our guys” before training camp for the 1994 World Championship of Basketball, I never – in my wildest imagination – thought I’d be ‘Dee-ing up’ Shaquille O’Neal a couple years later.
After having Shaq dropped in my lap as the last pick of our infamous draft, (i.e. the most work, the most challenging, the perceived highest of maintenance for a PR guy), I immediately placed an advice-seeking call to his team PR guy in Alex Martins.
“You’ve got to get him to trust you. You need to let him get to know you, the way you do with friends or family. You’ve got to be friends, first,” said Martins.
Tough order when your job is to get said 7-1 basketballer to say yes and do stuff he absolutely does NOT want to do. But try as I might.
It took time. Lots of time.
Gradually, a photo shoot became a bit of fun and no longer a chore. Much credit belongs to NBA photographer extraordinaire Andrew D. Bernstein along those lines, as a shoot with Hakeem Olajuwon and a very large globe (inflatable ball) became Shaq lifting the 7-foot Hakeem high over his head. Laughs, more laughs and out-takes and fun.
Shaq’s friend (and longtime security honcho) Jerome was omni-present and quiet, but approving of the new guy gradually slipping into a two-man inner circle.
The start of competition and my look out for all things Coca-Cola for the newfound Pepsi spokesman might’ve helped a little, as did cutting him some slack on days when no one would really care to speak with him about a prelim round game.
We plowed our way to the title of WCOB in Toronto and Shaq’s much-deserved MVP. It was more enjoyable than I imagined and we parted ways until the next NBA All-Star Game, an unexpected ’95 Finals trip for the Magic (thanks, Mike) as the days on the desktop calendar were ripped away to the Games of the ’96 Olympics which led to more requests, more interviews, more appearances and more photo shoots.
I can remember the ’96 NBA/USA Basketball PR Draft, which ended up being more like assigning territorial picks and my boss Brian McIntyre saying something like, ‘You have developed quite a nice relationship with Shaq, so why don’t you stick with him?’ My reward? The relatively easy duo of Hakeem and Stockton to help evenly distribute the incoming media request weight.
So, again we started. This time, with a new deal.
I agreed to rebound for him after practice. Bouncing basketballs from an extra 100 or more free throws attempts to be launched from the hands of a giant. Yes, a guy who he usually saw in a suit but in summer was dressed in USA Basketball sweats or shorts was agreeing to rebound in exchange for added cooperation with the legions of media that were to descend on Atlanta, Georgia. I had already started the request list and it was over two pages, but double/spaced.
My recollection was that he hit an amazingly high rate, usually 7-of-10 and his follow-through was always much better in practice than the way he would shoot them in games. It would drive me nuts. But, it was fun.
After the free throws, with the US team bus, long gone, an interview or two now completed each day, we would venture out. Me, Shaq and Jerome, usually.
To the store, to get a bite, a little side trip to wherever. It didn’t matter. One day – fast forwarding to the Olympics – we commandeered a golf cart and drove crazily through the IBC with Shaq at the wheel, Jerome riding shot gun and me holding on for dear life. We made impromptu visits and cut into live studio programming to a half dozen countries. Hello France! (Jacques Montclare was thrilled). We had a ball.
After USA prelim games, in the mixed zone, he would always come through and do a ton of extra international interviews.
Orlando Sentinel columnist George Diaz was always amazed and shaking his head in disbelief at a guy he covered for years, suddenly a media darling for the world. It was a blast.
But rewinding back, right before the Atlanta Games started, I think we were at Disney Sports Complex, the last tune-up before the Games, and I grew frustrated with Shaq’s poor FT percentage in practice and angrily tossed the ball AT him rather than TO him on a rebound – and, yes, I might have said something like – “You Suck!”
I charged him – in my best defensive stance, digging into the hard wood floor and in the “position of readiness” that Dr J had taught us at those ’89 clinics in Italy and on NBAE produced instructional videos.
He took the challenge as he grabbed the ball and instinctively turned his back to the basket and pivoted. His move was lightening quick and ever so powerful.
In a second, he was past me but not before his hip caught me at the very top of my rib cage, just under my armpit. The solid strike drove me back, from the free throw line area until I fell to the floor under the rim. Pained beyond belief, and without a doubt, suffering from a broken rib or two.
Like the great Boston writer Leigh Montville has so carefully instructed to the mere mortals, I will never venture back between the lines of the proverbial – call it The Sistine Chapel of professional sports competition – ever again and especially not in an attempt to guard the great Shaquille O’Neal, Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion, and Hall of Famer.