Connar Oberst was enjoying dinner with his girlfriend in Portland last January when he noticed a pair of basketball players doing some, uh, scouting.
The Celtics were in town for a game with the Trail Blazers, and the way Oberst tells it, guards Von Wafer and Nate Robinson were eyeing his other half as though she were on the dessert menu.
A protective boyfriend, Oberst mentioned the staring to his buddy, who called Wafer and Robinson over to his table and yelled, “If you keep checking out Connar’s girl, I’m gonna kick your (behind)!”
They backed off. When Shaquille O’Neal threatens you, after all, you listen.
Oberst, 20, has known the future Hall of Fame center for eight years now. The Vancouver native earned the opportunity to meet O’Neal when he was one of 10 winners in a national video contest asking youngsters to demonstrate their basketball skills and explain why they should be invited to the Diesel’s camp.
But shortly after 12-year-old Oberst showed up in Los Angeles, he showed up Shaq — dribbling the ball between the 7-footer’s legs, becoming the only video winner to score on him, then talking non-stop smack about it afterward.
O’Neal — who announced his retirement Wednesday — liked him immediately.
Since then, every time the Big Aristotle has come to Portland, he’s hooked the Oberst family up with tickets and chatted them up before each game. One time, he called Connar and his friend to the floor before the national anthem, and much to Rose Garden security’s chagrin, had them stand between him and Amare Stoudemire during the song.
He also has eaten dinner at the Obersts’ home, informed the family he’d be retiring five months ago, and when Connar was battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a teenager, would frequently call to check up on him.
“He’s amazing,” said Connar’s mother, Susan. “Shaq is a pretty big part of our lives. He tells me to put the earmuffs on so I don’t hear any of his bad words, but he loves my kid, and he’s good to all my boys and my husband.”
Connar treated cancer the way Shaq once did backboards, which was to obliterate it completely. He went on to be the starting point guard for Columbia River’s state runner-up basketball team two years ago, and earned a scholarship to Concordia University in Portland.
But while Connar is in remission, his relationship with his 330-pound comrade has been anything but.
Three years ago, O’Neal drove Oberst from Portland to his home in Vancouver after a double date, and the two freestyle rapped back-and-forth the whole way.
When Connar’s neighbor eyed Shaq upon their return at 11:30 p.m., O’Neal shouted, “Do you know who I am! I’m Connar’s body guard!” She closed the door instantly.
During his fight with lymphoma, there was a few-month period in which Connar was reluctant to take his medicine... until Susan called O’Neal, who called Connar and chewed him out. Not that O’Neal has never been on the receiving end of some harsh words — as Connar ribs his free-throw shooting at every opportunity.
Shaq takes it in his massive stride, though.
He considers Oberst one of his closer friends.
Perhaps that’s why he invited the Obersts to spend the Fourth of July with him in Miami three years ago. Or why he promised that, if Connar beats him in a dance contest, he’ll give him the keys to his Ferrari in South Beach for a week. Or why, if Oberst ends up getting engaged, Shaq insists on hosting the bachelor party.
“All-around, he’s just the coolest guy I’ve ever met. His character is unmatchable,” said Connar, adding that he and Shaq have talked a lot about Kobe Bryant, but that O’Neal never has anything disparaging to say about his former teammate. “It’s just crazy for me. Shaq is one of the most-well known people in the world, and he’s having dinner and lunch at my house. I always just have the biggest smile on my face. It’s amazing every time.”
Say what you will about Shaquille O’Neal. Yes, he had his feud with Bryant and childishly dissed him with some not-so-family-friendly lyrics three summers ago. And yes, he spewed an arguably racist comment about Yao Ming in 2002 and has made a career of delegating the blame for his teams’ shortcomings.
But few athletes embrace life with the same vigor as Shaq. And even fewer strive for others to feel just as grand as him.
Measuring tape shows O’Neal’s wingspan to be 85 inches. Connar Oberst would say his reach is much longer.
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 firstname.lastname@example.org