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Game not the same minus friend, lifesaver Shaq on court

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It would be nice to see 19-year-veteran superstar Shaquille O’Neal play the Bulls in the United Center one more time on his way to the Hall of Fame.

It didn’t happen Thursday night when his latest team, the Boston Celtics, played the Bulls to help decide which team will have the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs. Unless they play each other in the Eastern finals, we may never see him play again.

I was especially disappointed because Shaq has always been kind to me. Each year, the 7-1, 325-pound, 12-time All-Star gave me a 1-on-1 exclusive interview when I covered the NBA regularly. Nick Anderson, Chicago native and and his former Orlando Magic teammate, hooked us up in Shaq’s rookie year. We’ve been tight ever since.

Heck, Shaq saved my life in 2003. Upon the advice of Los Angeles Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, Shaq made me go to hospital in Milwaukee before he’d give me his annual interview. As it turned out, I was on the verge of suffering a heart attack. Emergency medical care prevented it. The next day I underwent a potential life-saving coronary stenting at Northwestern University. Shaq got on Jay Leno’s show telling everybody he saved me life and drew laughs when he grossly imitated how heavily I was breathing.

But when the Celtics came to town Wednesday and I relayed my request through team publicist Jeff Twiss, I got the bad news.

“Shaq knows who you are and everything once I gave him your name and number,” Twiss said. “I just luckily met him in the training room before we left. But he told me to tell you he won’t talk to the media anymore until he’s healthy and playing again.”

These last years haven’t been kind to Shaq, alias “The Diesel”, “Superman”, “The Big Daddy”, “The Big Galactus” and “The Big Aristotle.”

For years, he was the NBA’s dominant big man. But no more. At age 39, he is the oldest player in the NBA, playing for the sixth team in his career and fifth different team in nine years. He’s had a good run. He’s won four NBA championships, an Olympic gold medal and a slew of other honors, including being named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time.

He’s also earned $295 million in NBA salaries, three times what Michael Jordan earned.

Shaq once told me he would play until he’s 42. Robert Parish did. ­Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played until age 41. But these were skinnier, suppler centers. The heavier Shaq has only played 37 of this season’s 77 Celtic games because of injuries. After sitting out 27 games to recover from foot and Achilles tendon injuries, he tried to come back Monday night against the Detroit Pistons. He played a mere 5:29 before limping off the court with what coach Doc Rivers calls “a mild calf strain”.

The Celtics signed Shaq, also a talented actor, rapper and product endorser, to give them the low-post presence so valuable to championship contenders. They are 28-9 with him and 26-14 without him. If the Celtics had played with him all season at that 28-9 pace, even though he been averaging career low of 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, they would have come into Chicago 58-19, instead of 54-23, three games behind the Bulls.

Can the Celtics win the title ­without a healthy Shaq? I doubt it.

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