Kyle Grabowski: Shaq, Yao defined an era in their own ways

  • 2016 class of inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame Shaquille O'Neal shakes hands with Yao Ming, right, of China, during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

  • 2016 class of inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame Shaquille O'Neal models his jacket during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

  • The 2016 class of inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame, from the left, Ann Beaty, accepting on behalf of her late husband Zelmo Beaty, Ron Garretson, accepting on behalf of his father the late Darell Garretson, Tom Izzo, Maurice Banks, accepting on behalf of his late grandfather John McLendon, Shaquille O'Neal, Nancy Boxill, accepting on behalf of her late grandfather Cumberland Posey, Jerry Reinsdorf, Sheryl Swoopes, Yao Ming, and past inductee Jerry Colangelo pose for a group photo at the end of a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

  • Shaquille O'Neal, a 2016 class of inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame, smiles during a conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

  • Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Shaquille O’Neal, front left, helps fellow inductee Yao Ming, right, with his jacket during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday in Springfield. AP

  • Yao Ming of the 2016 class of inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

  • Yao Ming of the 2016 class of inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame during a news conference at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Jessica Hill

@kylegrbwsk
Published: 9/8/2016 9:44:14 PM

SPRINGFIELD — John Doleva held up Yao Ming’s Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame induction jacket with a look of shocked terror in his eyes.

How would the Hall of Fame’s president, a normal-sized man in every way, place it over the shoulders of China’s greatest basketball export?

Shaquille O’Neal intervened so Doleva wouldn’t have to find out.

Shaq, a massive human himself, held the jacket high enough for Yao to insert his arms into the sleeves and helped push it forward. He brushed off the front once Yao pulled the plackets forward. Real will always recognize real.

Yao extended his right hand and clasped Shaq’s before the pair shared an embrace.

They will be forever linked as members of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, two giants of the game who defined what it meant to play center in different ways.

On the court, Shaq flexed every inch and pound to overpower opponents. He went over, around and through opponents, whose only consistent answer was to foul him as hard as they could and send him to the free-throw line, where he famously struggled.

Yao managed to make 7-foot-6 look graceful. He unleashed a refined arsenal of post moves, jump shots and, yes, free throws, shooting 83 percent from the charity stripe.

While stylistically different, they both share a respect for the way the other played.

“He maybe is a nightmare for a lot of basketball players, and sometimes mine, too,” Yao said. “He’s the athlete that wanted it most, he’s a competitor on the court. He’d drive us forward. Tough, but no word can explain how tough.”

Shaq had to look up to Yao, but not like how he looked up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. He actually needed to exercise his neck muscles to raise his chin and line of sight, a rarity for a man listed at 7-foot-1.

He also faced those matchups as a challenge to his dominion.

Shaq won titles in the three years preceding Yao’s arrival from China.

Yao entered the league to much fanfare, a symbol of the game’s rapid globalization and gradual move away from the basket.

Shaq didn’t always succeed in proving to be the superior center.

“He’s the only guy to block my shot three times in a row, the only guy that could turn around, look me in the face and shoot over me and I can’t block it,” Shaq said. “Most guys I block it with a little jump. Trying to block Yao you need an extra burst of energy. He’s just so high.”

Jump ball battles, sharing All-Star rosters and contesting the paint together formed a bond of understanding and respect for the pair.

“I got in trouble one day for messing with Yao. I was the type of player that, I’m gonna embarrass you, talk about you, do what I gotta do to get you off your game,” Shaq said.

His father called him and told him he needed to take a private jet back home. Shaq’s parents ran his fan club. His father said he needed to show Yao more respect.

“I said, why? I don’t do that,” Shaq said.

His father showed him letters Yao wrote him when he was younger.

“Most of the guys I was killing I looked up to them, he said Yao looked up to me,” Shaq said. “Our relationship changed after that.”

Yao recognized Shaq’s place in the history of the game but wasn’t afraid to joke with him.

“Yao set me up,” Shaq said. “He hit me with a nice move, and I said, ‘That was a nice move.’ He said, ‘Thank you, brother.’ I was like, ‘You speak English?’ He was like, ‘Yeah Shaq. You never talk to me.’ That was a time I thought there was a language barrier there, but he speaks perfect English.”

Shaq has made trips to China for the better part of the last decade to grow the game and express himself as a celebrity and personality. He makes sure to get in touch with Yao and hang out.

Though both men will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it is for two radically diverse résumés.

Shaq boasts four NBA championships, a litany of All-NBA awards and collegiate domination for good measure. His place in Springfield was assured the moment his playing career ended.

Yao will be enshrined largely on the strength of his international accomplishment and global impact on the game. His NBA career featured multiple gaps for injuries to his feet that limited his effectiveness and availability. He still holds the record for most All-Star votes received. Yao won multiple championships in China and FIBA Asian Championships. He carried his country’s flag into the Beijing National stadium during the Parade of Nations at the 2008 Olympics.

If it were just an NBA Hall of Fame, Yao would not have gotten the call.

Perhaps that distinction colored their reaction to receiving the jacket, a Naismith orange answer to Augusta’s green and Canton’s yellow.

Shaq pulled it over his mountainous shoulders and posed, feeding off the energy of the crowd’s reaction to his presence. He thanked the Hall of Fame, Jerry Colangelo and a former youth coach who encouraged him to stick with the game, breathing the captive audience’s attention as easy as oxygen.

Yao accepted his jacket from Shaq and bent down to speak into the microphone. They don’t make a stand that extends that tall, and he speaks as softly as his shoulders are hard to reach.

“When I’m walking into this hall for the first time, I feel small,” Yao said. “I look up to the rooftop and see all the pictures around here. The thought of my picture up there is very special. All these stories, I really sense all the people before me from Dr. Naismith to today.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.


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