Shaquille O’Neal had many nicknames before he took on 14-time Olympic gold-medal winner Michael Phelps in a trio of races at Loyola College in Baltimore that aired on ABC’s “Shaq Vs.” Tuesday night.
Remarkably, the NBA star known as “Shaq,” “The Diesel,” “The Big Aristotle,” “Superman,” “Shaq-Fu” and, at the start of the three-race competition, “Shaq-Mu,” anointed himself with another monicker by the show’s end — moments after Phelps overtook him in the final yards of the last of the handicapped races.
“From now on,” O’Neal deadpanned after the defeat by 0.17 seconds, which gave Phelps a 2-1 edge in the competition, “I’m known as ‘The black Michael Cavic.’”
O’Neal will be forgiven for not nailing the reference; he meant Milorad Cavic, the unfortunate Serbian who seems to be routinely run down by Phelps in the second half of the 100-meter butterfly at major championships. At last year’s Olympics, he lost by .01 seconds.
The victory brought an animated and gleeful celebration from Phelps, who agreed to participate in the prime-time pseudo-competition because he figured it was a great way to promote swimming, a sport he wants to move into the mainstream.
For sure, Tuesday’s show was far more about entertainment than competition.
Phelps, though, did lose once.
“For me, it clearly raised the bar of the sport of swimming,” Phelps said during a rare serious moment on the show. “It shows the sport has taken itself to a new level.”
O’Neal received tactical and technical guidance from Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman in the days leading up to the race. Bowman’s primary piece of advice: Get your head down and look at the bottom of the pool so you get your hips up. The suggestion worked nicely.
In fact, O’Neal might have replaced Phelps as Bowman’s finest piece of handiwork; by the last event, he had shaved more than four seconds off of his best time in the 50-yard freestyle (he clocked a 38.76).
Phelps lost substantially to O’Neal in the first race, in which he went 50 yards to O’Neal’s 25 with a five-second head start and no dive. Phelps donned the Speedo LZR high-tech suit that will be banned after new suit rules go into effect Jan. 1; O’Neal squeezed his 7-foot, 300-lb. frame into a black bodysuit that had all of the length of Phelps’s LZR, but none of the tech. It looked highly elastic and somewhat flimsy, like it was made out of Lycra.
Nevertheless, when Phelps emerged from the water after finishing in 24.03 seconds, .89 behind O’Neal, he said with feigned dismay, “The suit helped him.”
Said O’Neal: “I’m just kinda upset that he was that close behind me.”
In the second race, Phelps swam a 200-yard individual medley against O’Neal teamed with U.S. stars Dana Vollmer (butterfly), Rebecca Soni (breaststroke) and Ariana Kukors (backstroke). Kukors got a diving start, so Phelps trailed by 10 seconds entering the final leg against O’Neal.
He touched the wall in 1 minute, 54.25 seconds to O’Neal’s 1:56.02.
“That one hurt a little bit,” Phelps said.
Before the last race, O’Neal proposed that the two ditch their bodysuits and race only in briefs, so both ceremoniously stripped down to brightly colored floral numbers. Phelps had to race 75 yards to O’Neal’s 50 from a standing start. Phelps chased O’Neal down with the same enthusiasm with which he typically pursues Cavic, finishing in 38.59.
The two had examined Phelps’s gold medals at his Baltimore townhouse a few days before the race. And that’s when the trash-talking began, at least from O’Neal.
“I am 37,” O’Neal said. “You are 24. I have 13 more years of tricky knowledge than you.”
Added O’Neal: “I believe I can do it. I’m in your house to challenge you. It’s Superman versus Aquaman.”
Phelps could not stifle the laughter: “Bring it on. This is going to be a good one.”
Watch the full episode here.