Shaq to Make Great Show Greater

It would be tremendous if the NBA labor stand-off went deep into next season and cost the league a large chunk of games. For that matter, since the NBA would never shorten the regular season willingly, it would be great if the league and players' union battled each other annually, so the number of games would be curtailed?

It actually would be good for the game. The 1998-99 season was one of the most energizing since it followed the NFL's traditional - and hopefully not changing -- less-is-more philosophy.

That season was shortened by a lockout, just as the current one could be as Commissioner David Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter continue to draw lines in the sand in labor negotiations.

The blissful 1998-99 regular season was only 50 games. So, from the starting gate, it was a race to the playoffs. The chance of a top team mailing it in on a cold night in Cleveland was surely lessened.

The current 82-game regular season is interminable, and teams struggle to stay interested. After losing a January game to Boston, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson was quoted asking: "Is it the playoffs yet? No. We're still playing regular-season games. We'll get there in time."



Yet, of course, even as NBA executives might privately agree they are jealous of the NFL's 16-game season, while the NBA's is too long, the league needs the gate for all 82 games, so that's not changing.

So, if the lockout ends soon and unfortunately allows this year's season to start on time, there is at least a silver lining: the "Big Aristotle" will impart his wisdom sooner. Shaquille O'Neal, one of the wittiest, smartest, funniest and most engaging players ever, will be joining TNT's "Inside the NBA" studio show, which is splendid because of the unpredictable and ingenuous commentary of Charles Barkley.

Not to be forgotten, though, is how host Ernie Johnson and fellow analyst Kenny Smith deftly goad Barkley into making provocative and unencumbered comments. They deserve immense credit for making Barkley one of the most entertaining analysts on TV.

Expect Johnson and Smith to excel at prodding O'Neal and help turn him into the same sort of lustrous personality Barkley is on the show.

Smith has already shown he's ready, coming through with a statement that O'Neal will be the "Big Analytical," a play on the 7-foot-1 O'Neal's penchant for giving himself nicknames starting with "Big."

O'Neal liked it, saying "Good job Kenny."

Of course, O'Neal will do fine even without some soft balls tossed his way. Like Barkley, he's likely to rogue. A taste came came during a news conference announcing his deal with TNT. Asked if he might be joining the Turner team on NCAA tournament broadcasts, O'Neal said: "I'm there."

That forced Turner Sports head David Levy to cut in and suggest that may not be happening.

O'Neal also can pleasantly offer the unexpected such as when he cited someone he hopes to emulate. "I'm just going to be charismatic, funny, very professional," he said. "My favorite analytical guy is Bryant Gumbel. He's so smooth, he's intelligent and hopefully I can get to that level someday."

On whether he considered seriously joining ESPN instead of TNT, Shaq said it was "very tempting," but "Inside the NBA" excites him because Barkely & Co. "keep it real and I thought it was the best fit for me."

Hopefully, he's being honest and it wasn't about the money. A coomitment to tell-it-like-it-is should make him as successful in the studio as he was on the court and the big man should help make the unending NBA seasons feel a bit shorter.

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