Unwavering Fortson meets Shaq head-on
When he woke up yesterday morning, looking out at the rare snowstorm blowing through the city, Danny Fortson, knowing his assignment for the day, might have felt like crawling back into bed.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When he woke up yesterday morning, looking out his window at the rare snowstorm that was blowing through the city, Danny Fortson, knowing his assignment for the day, might have felt like crawling back into bed, pulling up the comforter and sinking back into a deep sleep.
Fortson was expected to spend his early Sunday evening in the chapel of Shaq, leaning on Miami center Shaquille O'Neal, pushing him away from his favorite spots on the floor. Dining on a buffet of O'Neal elbows and forearms and shoulders.
He was going to be spending yesterday on the ugly side of the game, inside the paint, far from the pretty jump shots and soft no-look passes.
Even though he would be surrendering six inches and about 50 pounds, Fortson was expected, for about 20 to 25 minutes, to stand his ground against the most inexorable force in sports. He would asked to dance a prodigious pas de deux with the daddy of all big men.
So what was he thinking, as he put on his uniform and prepared for O'Neal? Fortson smiled at the question.
"He's just another big lug, as far as I'm concerned, that I've got to push around," Fortson said.
They had spent part of the previous week exchanging verbal shots. O'Neal calling Fortson a "flopper." And Fortson challenging O'Neal to take his game away from the safety of the paint and shooting one, just one, jump hook.
"He upset me. He woke me up," O'Neal said before the Sonics won their second game in seven days over Miami, 108-98. "You don't want to awaken me."
A year ago, the Sonics wouldn't have had a prayer against this Miami team. Jerome James would have been in foul trouble before the first bead of sweat had formed.
And his replacement, Calvin Booth, would have been used as a revolving door by O'Neal and guard Dwyane Wade and any other Heat player willing to drive to the basket.
But Fortson, who came from Dallas in a trade for Booth, has brought something to Seattle this city hasn't seen since Frank Brickowski. He brought a fearless, smackdown mentality the Sonics have needed for almost a decade.
"He's not afraid of contact," Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. "He wanted the challenge and basically he got it and he did a solid job."
In the great NBA tradition of Wayne Embry defending Wilt Chamberlain, or Wes Unseld defending every big man of the 1970s, Fortson isn't afraid of contact.
He isn't afraid of meeting O'Neal in the middle of the lane and colliding head-on to stop a sure field goal. He isn't afraid to push and push against the great wall.
After Miami had gone on a 12-0 blur of a run to take a 95-93 lead, Fortson restored order. He drove into O'Neal and Wade and scored the tying basket.
In the final five minutes, he made 5 of 6 free throws. He beat O'Neal, Eddie Jones and Damon Jones to a rebound, drew a foul and made the two free throws that sealed the game with 45 seconds left.
He helped hold O'Neal to one field goal and five points in the fourth quarter and finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. It was Fortson's fifth double-double of the season.
"He changed the game with, not only making Shaquille work, but creating second opportunities for us tonight," McMillan said. "He was solid tonight."
Fortson and O'Neal have had issues in the past. Several seasons ago, O'Neal called Fortson a "bum." Fortson hasn't forgotten, but he's forgiven. And last night, he retaliated with his game, finding a way to get his game into O'Neal's head.
"You can't get into my head. I've been through it all," O'Neal protested before the game. "You learn through experience and you adapt to certain situations. I've been through the changing of the rules, the changing of the defenses. But you can't get into my head. It's locked, sealed, super-glued shut."
In the first half, O'Neal was feeling so good he ran past the Sonics' bench and delivered some good-natured trash. But by the fourth quarter, Fortson was beating him to the ball and winning the fight for post position.
"I just laughed (when O'Neal ran past the bench). I wasn't too much worried about that," Fortson said. "If I sit there and bite into that, then he wins the game and I wasn't going for that. I just laughed a little.
"And those things he said a couple of years ago, I don't really care anymore. I got over it. I love Shaq. He's a great guy. Not only that, I admire him. As far as Shaquille's concerned he's going to be the greatest center of all time."
At the end of the game, after the rest of his teammates had left the floor, O'Neal sought out Fortson and hugged him near midcourt.
It was more than just a gesture. It meant something to Fortson.
"It's an honor to say, 'Hey, I was out there playing with him,' " Fortson said. "I respect him. He's a great player. He has a good heart."
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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