Shaq's back in the spotlight . . . somehow

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Shaq's back in the spotlight . . . somehow

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Its funny how life works sometimes.

For instance, lets take Shaquille ONeal. One of the greatest centers in NBA history. One of the most famous athletes in the entire world. A guy who, back in August, was willing to give it all up in the name of another ring.

Honestly, thats all he said he wanted.

He wasnt going to give up the fame entirely. When he was off the court, hed still be Shaq, the guy who lives life under a self-imposed microscope. Hed be the most charitable athlete in the city; the most accessible athlete in the city. Hed come to town and live a relatively normal life, do a lot of normal (and some not-so-normal) things. Everywhere he went hed be treated like a hero, like the larger-than-life figure that hes always been. Hed love it. And so would we.

But when it came to basketball, Shaq said he was going to change. He said he wanted to be different. After 17 years spent in the NBA spotlight, and always demanding (and for the most part deserving) that same hero-like treatment in the locker room that he received in the real world, Shaq came to Boston and said he was ready to step aside. He understood the situation. He was the old man. He was the complimentary piece. He wasnt the hero anymore. He wasn't even the sidekick.

He wasnt a necessity, just a super-sized luxury.

And this was OK. He made the transition look easy.

Shaq came to Celtics with the reputation of letting his ego get in the way of what was best for the team. But once he got here, it just wasnt like that. He was embracing team like he never had before. Wed heard that this wasnt the first time hed shown up somewhere and said all the right things, but after a while, the guy really started to feel genuine. It didnt matter what they asked of him.

Oh, you want me to play on the second team? All right, all right. I guess Im the worlds first Shaq-up center." (Queue 20 seconds of uncontrollable media laughter)

He didnt care about numbers, he said. He didnt care about the spotlight, he said. He only cared about winning.

And for the first few months, thats all he had to worry about.

Of course, there were a few injuries -- we always knew there'd be a few -- but, for the most part, Shaq was healthy, and so were the Cs. Happy and healthy, and due largely to ONeal. The starters gelled around him, and the chemistry was unstoppable. He brought Kevin Garnett to places hed never been while in Boston. KG was so miserable the season before, dealing with the effects of age and injury, but Shaq came in and turned back the clock. KG appeared happier than hed been at any time since things unraveled in Minnesota, and was playing his best ball since 2008.

The Shaq Experience probably hit its high note on November 26, the night Shaq dropped 25 point and 11 rebounds on the Nets.

This is a great team. The best team I've been on,"he said afterward. "They've got a lot of weapons on this team, so on any given night anybody can be the leading scorer. The team's very unselfish . . .

That same night, Kevin Garnett repaid the compliment:

Theres no ego with Shaq, its all about the team, he said. You hear different things about certain guys in our league and Shaq was no different from that, but Ive yet to see those things. I think its about how we approach Shaq, and how we deal with Diesel here.

All was good. Shaq really seemed to be a changed man. It helped that because of injuries to Jermaine ONeal and Kendrick Perkins, he still hadnt had to come off the bench; his pride hadnt entirely been threatened. It helped that Rondo was playing so well and the team was cruising. There were nights where Shaq was clearly hurting, but stepped up and gave the Celtics an impactful 20 minutes. He was really working.

But by Christmas, he started to wear down, physically and mentally.

There were games, like Christmas Day in Orlando, where Shaq took the court and made it clear he wasnt in for the long haul. Bob Delaney shares some of the blame on Christmas, but Shaqs 6 fouls-in-12-minutes performance was less inspiring than a Belichick press conference.

From there, it was inconsistent. Injuries mounted; effort, or least intensity, varied. He was still a presence in that locker room, but you were starting to see that old Shaq.

At one point, I was reminded of a conversation Id had back on Opening Night, when the Celtics and Heat kicked off the regular season. I was talking to a reporter from Miami as the teams went through layup lines. Shaq went up for a dunk and the guy turned to me.

Him: (half-laughing): So, you guys ready for Shaq?

Me: Yeah, so far so good. Lets just see if hes still in one piece by April.

Him: Aw, no. Hell be there in April. Take it from someone who watched him for 2 12 years. What you have to worry about is February and March, when he doesnt want to play.

On January 21, Shaq left a game against Utah after only six minutes and then missed the next three games with a leg injury. He came back a week later, and scored five points in 15 minutes against the Suns, then zero points in 12 minutes against the Lakers. On February 1, he scored three points in 16 minutes against Sacramento. Afterwards, he spoke with Yahoo!s Marc Spears.

Its hard not being in charge for me. It really is. But I got to accept it, ONeal said. This is a good team. Im not the only Hall-of-Famer hopeful here.

If I was on a bad team, Id be pissed right now. Two points? I would have expletive somebody up in the locker room.

He hasnt played since. And in that time, a lot has changed.

The Celtics have been through so much. For one reason or another, Shaq -- the once-essential part of that off-the-court attitude and off-the-charts chemistry -- hasnt been there. Maybe thats not entirely his fault, but that doesnt change the reality. He wasnt in Denver when the team went through the emotional hell of losing one of their brothers (not that it would have affected Shaq quite as much). He wasnt there as they welcomed the new guys and started building a new team, a new identity.

Teams arent built in the offseason. Maybe thats when everyone signs the contracts, but real teams are built over 82 games. As the Celtics went through some major team moments, Shaq wasnt there.

The details of why have been hazy. But from the way Docs been talking lately, and with the way the story keeps changing by the source, and by the second, heres the best guess on whats going on:

1. Shaq tried to make his comeback after the All-Star break, but still wasnt feeling great. He felt strong enough to play, but not strong enough to feel like he could play for any extended period of time. Maybe he could have gone for a few weeks, but eventually it was going to sneak back up on him.

2. The Celtics response: Dont rush back. If youre not 100 percent, just take a little bit more time. We know the trade of Perkins leaves a hole in our lineup, but we'd rather have a hole in the lineup now than in the playoffs. So just do what you need to do to get healthy, and well see you soon.

3. Soon turned into not so soon. The Celtics are short players. The Celtics are losing games. The Celtics are going through their worst stretch of the season and now theyre looking at Shaq and thinking: Really? We said take your time, but . . . REALLY?!

Which bring us to now. They know he can play. They know that if the playoffs started tomorrow, Shaq would find his way into the lineup.

But to the Celtics, even though its not the playoffs yet, this time of year feels almost as important in terms of finally putting this thing together. Everyone else is back. Delontes back. Jermaines back. Shaq would complete the triple. Shaq would finally give them the team (minus Krstic now) theyve been waiting for all season. Hes the last piece to the puzzle.

All of a sudden, the Celtics need Shaq. The Celtics are begging for Shaq. The fans are begging for Shaq. Now Shaqs the story.

Hes the number one question on everybodys mind. Hes no longer just one of the guys. Hes back to being Shaq.

And you know what the worst part about it is?

Shaq didnt want any of this!

Remember? He said he was too old for this. He said he was done playing the hero. He said he didnt want it to be about him.

But now he's all anybody wants to talk about.

Must be an awful time for the Big Guy.

If only there was a way to make it stop.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Mingo, Branch among the Patriots sitting out of preseason game No. 3

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Mingo, Branch among the Patriots sitting out of preseason game No. 3

Barkevious Mingo has made his way to Charlotte to join the Patriots, but he will not take the field with his new club about 24 hours after being traded by the Browns. 

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder that the Patriots acquired for a fifth-round pick on Thursday went through a workout long before Friday night's preseason game, but he was not in uniform with his teammates leading up to kickoff. 

Along with Mingo, Rob Gronkowski, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Jonathan Cooper, Shaq Mason, Malcolm Mitchell, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Shea McClellin and Alan Branch were not on the field for warmups. All four players who are still on the physically unable to perform list -- Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Amendola, Tre' Jackson and Dion Lewis -- were also missing. 

Branch has been reinstated by the Patriots and re-joined the team after serving a team-imposted week-long suspension, but it appears as though he will not take the field Friday night. 

Ninkovich (triceps), Mitchell (elbow), Cooper (foot), Mason (hand, reportedly), Sheard (knee) and McClellin (undisclosed) have been dealing with injuries and were not expected to play. Grugier-Hill is a bit of a surprise absence given that he practiced for the Patriots this week. 

Keep an eye on running back DJ Foster and receiver Keshawn Martin, both of whom will see preseason game action for the first time this summer and could make late runs at roster spots. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman may also see some game action for the first time this preseason as he was on the field with the team and in uniform before the game. Logan Ryan, Nate Ebner and undrafted rookie tight end Bryce Williams may see their first game action as well. 

As Tom E. Curran reported, Tom Brady will play, though Jimmy Garoppolo will start. Brady and the team's other quarterbacks took the field together for warmups in the lead-up to kickoff. 

Curran: In Brown case, NFL -- again -- asleep at the investigatory switch

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Curran: In Brown case, NFL -- again -- asleep at the investigatory switch

The problem isn’t that the people running the NFL are stupid. They think everyone else is stupid. That’s the problem.  

Latest evidence submitted to the already existing mountain of proof that the NFL thinks we’re all a bunch of drooling dolts? Deciding to give Giants kicker Josh Brown a one-game suspension for violating the domestic-violence policy instead of the mandated six. 

Did they not think people would find out Brown’s suspension stemmed from allegedly putting hands on his ex-wife? And that questions would naturally arise as to why Brown’s suspension was 85 percent shorter than what the NFL JUST mandated? And that, given the NFL’s brutally inept investigations and jaundiced rulings in Bountygate, Deflategate and the Ray Rice case meant that “Hey, take our word for it, we know what we’re doing here . . . ” wasn’t sufficient. 

Apparently. 

Because here the NFL is, softshoeing around the topic, suggesting without stating that Brown’s ex-wife might be given to exaggeration and expecting that to be enough. It isn’t. 

We discussed this Tuesday afternoon on WEEI and that day I said about 44 times that the NFL owes transparency to the American public that misplaced its trust in it being able to do the right thing. 
Hell, if a member Roger Goodell’s newly minted Star Chamber was saying just a year ago that he was “wrong to put his faith in the league” why should we feel okay accepting “Because we said so . . . ” as a reasonable explanation?

My friend Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk wrote on this topic as well on Friday:

But for the bounty scandal and the Ray Rice second suspension and #Deflategate, maybe folks would be inclined to give the league the benefit of the doubt and accept the notion that full transparency would undermine privacy interests of the player involved and his family. Given those past incidents and in consideration of the current circumstances, it’s difficult to not wonder whether the facts as collected by the team and the league fairly led to a decision to suspend Brown for only one game, or whether that’s simply the outcome the league and the team wanted, regardless of whether the facts (including a claim by Brown’s ex-wife of 20 prior incidents of violence) suggest that the punishment should have been more severe.

Would I like to be able to accept the NFL at face value on this issue and others like it? Absolutely. It’s not my fault that I can’t, and it’s the responsibility of the NFL and the Giants to properly balance player privacy interests against loudly-stated proclamations from 2014 about no excuses and no tolerance for domestic violence in a way that doesn’t require the benefit of the doubt or any other courtesy to be extended by a public whose confidence in the game is supposedly of paramount importance to the league.

If only the league would hire a Senior Vice President of Investigations to ensure that the league neither bungles its detective work nor loses the public and player’s faith that it’s not bending the rules. 

SURPRISE! It did hire one. And she’s a yooooooge! Giants fan. 

Here’s a couple of snippets from the fawning New York Times piece written in February about Lisa Friel:

“The stated option chosen by the N.F.L., … is no longer to defer to law enforcement but rather to conduct professional internal investigations that are not designed to please the head office, yet dispel the impression that its biggest stars seem above reproach.

"This option largely comes down to a woman named Lisa Friel, whose league office is adorned with portraits of giants: the former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the current Giants quarterback Eli Manning — and, most tellingly, Robert M. Morgenthau, the august former Manhattan district attorney.

"Friel spent nearly three decades working for Morgenthau, serving for many years as the chief of his Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit. She said he had instilled in her a prosecutorial code of conduct: 'You investigate every allegation that comes in; you investigate it objectively, sensitively and thoroughly. And when you get to the end of your investigation, you make an objective decision about what happened. That’s your job.'

"Friel said she was applying those principles as the N.F.L.’s senior vice president for investigations — a position created in the wake of the league’s mishandling of the case of Ray Rice, then a Baltimore Ravens running back, whose chilling assault of his future wife was captured on surveillance video and became, among other things, a public relations disaster for the N.F.L.

"Friel is responsible for investigating alleged violations of the league’s personal conduct code: domestic violence, sexual assault, animal cruelty, blackmail, extortion, racketeering, disorderly conduct, you name it. She emphasizes that the adjudications or dismissals of court cases do not dictate the outcomes of her own inquiries, which some officials in the players’ union find at times to be overzealous."

So within a year of the NFL hiring someone because the Ray Rice investigation yielded an embarrassingly, distressingly insufficient suspension, the NFL has handed down what seems to be an insufficient suspension.

In an investigation ostensibly headed by Friel. Of a player who plays for the team she adores. 

"Her job, which is intended to establish much-needed consistency in the league’s handling of misconduct cases, is at the center of a decidedly alpha-male environment. But Friel, 58, sees it as a twinning of passions, 'a perfect fit.'

"To begin with, she is a devout Giants fan, a season-ticket holder whose basement in her Brooklyn apartment is, as The Daily Beast once reported, a blue-and-red shrine to the Jints. Among her earliest memories of growing up in New Jersey is watching a Giants game on a black-and-white television and asking her father: 'Who are we rooting for, Daddy? The ones in the black uniforms or the ones in the white uniforms?' "

Now, circling back to my original point. I don’t think Lisa Friel -- accomplished prosecutor -- is going to go easy on a wife-beater in her new job just because she’s sat in the owner’s box a few times and had a crush on Phil Simms. 

Nor do I think John Mara -- another member of Goodell’s Star Chamber and a particularly beloved owner on 345 Park Avenue -- is going to want Brown on his team if his actions were truly as revolting as they seem without context. 

But that neither Friel nor Mara are made to uncomfortably stand and explain the is a kind of favoritism. And it’s the type of wrong-headed PR move that only an arrogant monolith like the NFL would embrace. 

Friel addressed in the Times story her vigilance at being used by the NFL as a puppet. 

"But Friel also rejects any story line that she is a co-opted cog in a public relations effort to stem an image crisis.

" 'I am a professional at what I do, and I take what I do so seriously, and the repercussions are so important, that I would never not do the right thing,'  she said.

"She added, 'If I felt the pressure to do something other than that, I would go look for another job.' "

The only thing the NFL’s offered as a reason for Brown’s light suspension is that neither his ex-wife nor authorities cooperated in the investigation the NFL tried to conduct. Whether that’s the whole truth or not, folding their tent and not offering an explanation for it flies in the face of this statement made by Friel six months ago talking to the Times. 

"The only issue (she declined even to call it a frustration) is the expectation by some of instant investigative findings following an allegation. Friel said that she was no longer in law enforcement, had no subpoena power and must pursue these cases more like a reporter or private investigator.

"This means asking the local police department for incident reports, transcripts of 911 calls, photographs, interviews with responding officers. This means wading through redacted documents, being rebuffed by witnesses and alleged victims, waiting for the processing of freedom-of-information requests. This means hitting walls, putting together a to-do list, then waiting for the case to be adjudicated, dismissed or closed.

"Then, Friel said, 'we’re going to circle back and go through the whole list again.' "

The NFL had two choices when it how to package Brown’s suspension. Either leave people to presume it was trying to bury an infraction and save face for the beloved owner or a precious New York city franchise. Or demonstrate that there really was a new way of doing business by being painfully transparent. 

It chose the former. And they now deal with the fallout of mistrust. Again. Still.