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Our own guys might just be more reliable for your charity event

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 19, 2002


Has anybody seen my friend Shaquille?

I don't know how you lose a 7-foot-3, 350-pound man, but the organizers of the Shaquille O'Neal Celebrity Basketball Weekend managed to do it. In fact, the series of events -- a dinner on Friday night, a clinic on Saturday and Sunday and a game Sunday night -- did not include O'Neal or any of the big name NBA stars that were promised.

I attended the dinner on Friday night at the Marriott Waterside and the disappointment when they announced O'Neal, Toronto's Vince Carter and Orlando's Tracy McGrady were not coming was palpable. At $150 per person, how could it not be?

Carter, however, did show up for Sunday's game.

A few guests immediately got up and went to the bar to watch the conclusion of the Bucs-Jaguars pre-season game. And I think even Gov. Jeb Bush was disheartened. His keynote speech did not have nearly as much bravado as his address to the Tampa Bay Black Republicans a week earlier.

Boxer Antonio Tarver, former boxer Tyrone Booze and Harlem Globetrotter great Curly Neal did appear, but it was hardly enough. As the guy sitting next me to said, "I can remember when Curly used to be on Scooby Doo."

Has anybody seen my friend Tracy?

The easy thing to do is rip the organizers and chastise O'Neal, who reportedly was paid $50,000 to come to Tampa. Start with this question: Why did O'Neal need $50,000? He draws more than that in quarterly interest. He probably drops that much on a trip to the mall.

He couldn't have shown up for free? After all, the events were supposed to benefit a number of charities and help raise money to battle illiteracy.

And if O'Neal has a reason for not making it, an explanation from him or one of his representatives should have been offered Friday night.

Whether O'Neal is at fault or not, the organizers have to assume some blame for his absence. When you promise that one of the world's most-recognized athletes is coming to town and charge steep prices (kids were charged $250 to attend the basketball clinics), you have to deliver.

Anything less is just unacceptable.

If you want an NBA-themed event, it might be better to solicit the people in our community who have NBA ties.

Current center Andrew DeClercq and former center Matt Geiger both played for Countryside High. Why not ask them to invite some dependable NBA friends.

Maybe former Indiana Pacer Haywoode Workman, who lives in New Tampa, would be willing to help. Did I mention the owners of the Lightning also own an NBA team? They could lend a hand . . . and a few stars.

And don't forget, George Steinbrenner has connections with the New Jersey Nets. Get him on board and I guarantee players will show. The Boss does not mess around.

You might end up with players who don't carry the name recognition of O'Neal (who does?), but they might be more reliable because they have ties to the community. And maybe the community would be willing to give the event another chance since it would be "our own guys."

The point here is don't give up. The organizers are undoubtedly embarrassed and probably angry. But increasing literacy is a noble cause. They should let the hurt spur them to greater efforts in the future.

Lesser people have overcome greater challenges, even if the challenge is overcoming a blocked shot by the most dominating player in NBA history.

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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