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"Don't you wanna dance?" Prithi asked Shaq, alone at their table.
"I'm a lover, not a dancer."
What happens when Shaquille O'Neal decides he would like to take your wife back to his hotel? The full sordid, fascinating story after the jump. And we'll have another story this afternoon.
It is the second week in October. But it's not an October like any other October I've ever felt, because this was the October I lived in Hawaii. I lived in Hawaii for a year because my wife got a job in Hawaii, a yearlong appointment as a clerk to a judge in Honolulu. And I tagged along, I mean, come on. When your wife gets a job in Hawaii, you tag along.
And while Hawaii is many wonderful things — I would move back there tomorrow, given the opportunity — it is not the easiest place to meet new friends, so almost all the friends we made during our year in Hawaii were other law clerks for other Honolulu judges, and those clerks' husbands. Several of those clerks and husbands play parts in this story. The names of the clerks are Prithi, Liuba, and Amy. The names of their husbands are, respectively, Rob, Eric, and Benji.
Now, just because all we husbands followed our wives to Hawaii was not to say that we were complete tagalongs. Eric and Benji are both lawyers as well, and Rob and I both telecommuted to our old jobs back on the Mainland. Rob in particular is quite an impressive guy. He worked for some time for a company called Sandbox.com, which is an online sports site focusing on fantasy leagues and NCAA pools. Rob continued working for Sandbox until late last year, when the company was bought out and the new owners said, "Why do we have an employee in Hawaii?"
Rob is an athletic guy: a college baseball player, much better than me at basketball and golf, an avid surfer and runner. Once back on the Mainland, Rob would take and pass the Secret Service Examination. Basically, Rob is a stud.
And he proved it the night we met Shaquille O'Neal.
It was a Friday night, and it started, as such things often do, with an unopened bottle of tequila. Prithi had declared that this one night, she felt like going out, drinking, and dancing. (As lawyers and the husbands of lawyers, we did not often go out, drink, and dance.) But Prithi wanted to this October night, and she'd purchased a bottle of tequila to help convince the rest of us.
We were in Rob and Prithi's apartment in Waikiki. The apartment was very small and a little bit ratty but right on the beach. It took us a while to work our way through the bottle of tequila — as lawyers and the husbands of lawyers, we did not often work our way through bottles of tequila — and while we did, we sat around the apartment and chatted. Rob and Prithi, sports fanatics both, mentioned that they had tickets for the upcoming Lakers-Warriors exhibition game on the University of Hawaii's campus. Too bad Shaquille O'Neal wasn't going to play, because of his injured toe — the same toe that kept him out much of this season, but seems to have miraculously healed for the playoffs.
Once the bottle of tequila was polished off, we got ready to head to the W Hotel Honolulu, five minutes down the beach. "Are you coming?" Prithi asked Rob, who was sitting on the couch talking baseball with Eric.
"I guess," Rob said.
"You don't have to. I mean, it'll probably be fun, but it's up to you. I know you're not a big dancer." Prithi pointed to his feet. "You'll need to change, though."
"Change?" Rob scoffed.
"They won't let you in with shorts and slippers," Prithi said, referring to the plastic flip-flop sandals that everyone wears in Hawaii.
"Screw that!" Rob laughed. He and Eric decided to hang out at the apartment while the rest of us went to W. I was wearing long pants with slippers, but hoped they'd let me in since I was accompanying a large group of attractive people. In those rare instances in which I go someplace schmancy enough to make possible my rejection at the door, I often get in this very way: show up at the door with cute people who are willing to claim me, and the bouncer will grudgingly wave me through with my friends.
Which is what happened. We paid our ten bucks' cover and climbed the stairs to the bar. We could hear the bass thumping as the speakers on the dance floor in the next room over pumped out Mary J. Blige. Immediately, a girl ran in from the dance floor and announced to her friends — right next to us — "Oh my God, you guys, Shaquille O'Neal is on the dance floor."
It was as if someone had yelled "Fire!" Everyone in the bar headed straight for the door to the dance floor, where it was immediately apparent the girl was not lying — for there, his torso looming above the crowd like a lost island in a sea of heads, was Shaq Himself.
He is 7'1" and built like a — what's something that's really built? A building. Shaq is built like a building is built. His bald dome gleamed in the purple light of the W Honolulu's dance galleria. Our group stood in the entrance, lost in awe.
All of us except Prithi, that is. She was already gone, making a beeline for Shaq, shoving dancers out of the way, cutting in front of the girls vying for Shaq's attention, and holding her hand up for him to shake. Shaq shook it. "Hi Shaq," she said. "I'm Prithi."
It should be noted at this point that Prithi, in addition to being smart and funny and a good lawyer and a huge sports fan and everything, is also a very pretty woman. So Shaq noticed her, in a manner that might have been subtle had it not been exhibited by a freaking giant.
He immediately tuned out the other girls surrounding him, who stared daggers at the young lawyer in their midst. Prithi, meanwhile, was telling Shaq that she and her husband were both huge fans of his. Then Shaq said the first thing he ever said to a close friend of mine. He said:
"I like to meet my fans."
Meanwhile, the rest of us were, of course, gawking. Soon we formed a circle, dancing near Prithi and her new best friend. As lawyers and the husbands of lawyers, we did not often get to dance with Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq went to the bar, to buy Prithi a beer. While he was gone, Prithi told us that Shaq wanted all of us to come back to his hotel room and party with him later. Amy was horrified by the notion; the rest of us laughed at the very idea. "Just think," I hollered to my wife over the music, "we'll be able to tell our kids that we partied with Shaq!"
"They'll never believe how cool we once were," she replied.
"Aren't you worried about this?" Amy asked us.
"Hey, she told him she was married," I said.
On a basketball court, Shaq dominates the paint. He dominates the game. Other teams focus on him, key on him, but nevertheless are unable to stop him. When watching Lakers games on television, I find it difficult to notice other players, as the game itself clearly runs through Shaq alone.
It was the same that night at the W. Shaq is magnetic, and he commanded the room. Even when he and Prithi wandered off to sit at a table near the wall and chat further, he still was the focal point for all those still on the dance floor. Everything we said, every step we took, was supercharged because of our proximity to a mega-celebrity.
And I must say something about this. I know, in my mind, that celebrities are people just like you or me — human beings who through luck or talent or some prodigious gift of genetics have achieved great fame. Indeed, on the rare occasions that I have encountered celebrities, I have almost never stood in awe of them — in fact, I often make embarrassing efforts to find their flaws, no matter how much a fan I might be. Hey, Helen Hunt, you're wearing a nice dress — I wonder how your eating disorder's going? Wes Anderson, do you really dress like a French schoolchild 365 days of the year? Tom Waits, is there any human being who looks more ridiculous than you paddling a kayak?
But it was different with Shaq. Unlike Rob and Prithi, I am not a fan of Shaq. I didn't like the Lakers at all, and in fact can barely tolerate NBA basketball, preferring the college game. But it simply didn't matter whether I was a fan of Shaq or not. Everyone in the club was a fan of Shaq that night. It was impossible not to be.
Indeed, Shaq seemed that night to be the essence of celebrity, celebrity in its purest form. The point of celebrities is that they seem larger than life. But Shaq: Shaq really is larger than life. He was larger, that night, than every form of life in the club, larger than the other dancers, larger than the bouncers, larger than the palm trees next to the bar. He is larger than anything I have ever seen before. He was Largeness incarnate that night, wearing a large incandescent shirt, wielding a large high-wattage smile. Just getting near him you felt his charge. If I were a basketball player, I would fall away from his power like wheat before the scythe.
How much did Shaq command the room? Also in the room, but totally ignored: Los Angeles Lakers Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw. No one gave a crap about them. I ask you, by the way: if you were on the Lakers, and you wanted to go out and pick up some girls, why on earth would you go out with Shaq? You will be overshadowed. You will be ignored.
"Don't you wanna dance?" Prithi asked Shaq, alone at their table.
"I'm a lover, not a dancer."
I came over to their table and surreptitiously asked Prithi how she was doing. "I'm cool," she said.
My skin might have been baking from my proximity to Shaq. "How's his foot?" I asked.
"How's your foot?" Prithi shouted to Shaq.
"It's my toe."
I headed out to the bathroom, and on my way back in, ran into Amy and Benji. They were leaving. "I cannot believe Prithi is hanging out with that basketball player!" Amy said indignantly. "Isn't she worried about what's going to happen?"
"She's fine," I said. "She's a grown woman."
Soon Shaq and Prithi were back on the dance floor. We all danced with Prithi. Shaq stood and watched. After a half an hour, Shaq said to Prithi:
"Okay, let's go back to my hotel."
"Cool," Prithi said. "Let me get my friends."
To which Shaq replied, levelly:
"No, not your friends. Just you."
Prithi laughed. Then, when Shaq didn't laugh, Prithi stopped laughing. He stared right at her. Prithi later told me that she was trying to figure out whether Shaq forgot she was married or just didn't care. Either way, she didn't know exactly how to get out of the situation.
And it was at that exact uncomfortable moment, with Shaq smiling down at Prithi and Prithi dismayedly looking up at Shaq, that Rob, Prithi's husband, walked onto the dance floor, sauntered up to Shaq, and said, "Hey Shaq, how's it going? I'm Prithi's husband." Then he turned to Prithi and set a new world record for Security In One's Own Manhood by asking her, in front of Shaquille O'Neal, "Hey, can I borrow twenty bucks? Me and Eric don't have cash for the cover charge."
It turns out Amy and Benji had walked back to Prithi and Rob's apartment to tell Rob and Eric that Shaquille Freaking O'Neal was at the W and was buying Prithi drinks. I got the impression Rob was less worried about Prithi running off with Shaq than he was at the idea that he might miss his chance to meet the guy. At any rate, he threw on some pants and real shoes, came to the W, and rode in like the damn cavalry.
Well, Shaq shook Rob's hand — and then, presumably on the advice of his lawyer, Shaquille O'Neal immediately disappeared to the other end of the dance floor. The focus of the room moved with him, and the heat, and the crowd, and soon we muscled our way out to the sidewalk. It was a beautiful night, of course, and we could hear the surf in the distance. My wife took my arm, and Liuba took Eric's, and Prithi took Rob's.
We were exhilarated. We laughed. We would remember this night. We would tell this story over and over again, to each other, to friends, even at events for which people paid an admission charge. As lawyers and the husbands of lawyers, we did not often get out this late, drink this much, feel this way.
"That was awesome," I said.
Eric laughed. "That guy... that guy is huge."
"No kidding," Prithi said. "And Rob got there just in time."
"Yeah," Rob said, nonchalantly. "Didja see me kick Shaq's ass?" Athlete Run-Ins: Craps With Jeff Fisher [Deadspin]