NEW ORLEANS - Larger-than-life likenesses of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard - a trilogy of NBA giants - adorn one side of a downtown hotel. They tower over trolleys and tourists on Canal Street along the French Quarter's fringe.
The mammoth images of the All-Stars are impressive and imposing, yet somehow seem incomplete. Someone, a very big someone, is absent from the monstrous montage - one Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal.
You know, Shaq.
For the first time since announcing his arrival in the league as a rookie by tearing down two backboards, O'Neal aka "The Diesel," aka "The Big Aristotle," aka "The Big Daddy," aka "Wilt Chamberneezy," aka "The Real Deal," and recently self-dubbed "The Big Cactus" after being traded to the Phoenix Suns, isn't an All-Star. His streak of a record-tying 14 straight selections was halted by an injury-plagued first half.
"We miss him," Denver's Carmelo Anthony said. "He's our godfather. It don't feel right without having him here."
No, it doesn't.
Although he's been seen around the Big Easy, hosting a celebrity-studded party with Saints running back Reggie Bush the other night, O'Neal has kept a low profile - for him - during this weekend's festivities.
However, O'Neal's presence looms.
During Friday's media availability, All-Stars from both conferences talked about O'Neal's absence, his historic impact, and how despite being in the winter of his playing career he could still carry a team to a title.
And yet what many players focused on was Shaq's indomitable personality. How he lights up a room or arena wherever he goes. He may be the most loved player of his generation, and once he leaves the game, he will leave a gaping hole unlike any before.
O'Neal will be missed by everyone.
When that day arrives, Allen Iverson was asked who might be able to replace the four-time champion, who will turn 36 in a few weeks.
"I don't think nobody can fill those shoes," Iverson said, laughing when he realized he meant that both literally and figuratively. "Those are some big shoes."
Iverson feels O'Neal is as irreplaceable as a stolen Picasso.
"Everybody wants to play with Shaq," he said. "Everybody wants to be around Shaq. He's just a good guy on and off the floor. He's the best there will ever be at that position. When you talk about Shaq, I think you can put his name with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He's one of the best who ever lived."
In the record books, O'Neal's name rests alongside - and in many cases above - the other great centers in league history. But beyond the statistics, what separates O'Neal from the others may be that no one this side of the Harlem Globetrotters has had such a good time dominating.
Always a class act, he's also the class clown. At last year's All-Star game he engaged in a breakdancing contest with Howard and LeBron James, who eventually gave up trying to match the big man's moves.
"We all wish he was here," James said.
The trade that sent O'Neal from Miami to Phoenix came on the heels of Pau Gasol's acquisition by the Los Angeles Lakers. It's as if there's an ongoing arms race in the tougher-than-tough Western Conference. A possible deal sending Jason Kidd from New Jersey back to Dallas that's currently snagged would further tip the NBA's power structure to the left of the Mississippi.
O'Neal, who injured his hip diving for a loose ball against Utah in December, is expected to make his debut with the Suns on Wednesday against the Lakers, the team he helped lead to three NBA titles.
Before even stepping on the floor, O'Neal has had a positive impact on the Suns.
"He's been amazing," said point guard Steve Nash, a two-time MVP. "He's charismatic and he has a great personality. That's what's exciting to our team. With the skills that he brings to our team, we're all excited about the prospects."
If O'Neal is healed, and if the Suns can alter their fast-paced offense to suit him, they could be the team to beat. Although some feel O'Neal's best days are behind him, Iverson says a committed O'Neal can still do damage.
"You definitely root for him," Iverson said, "and I think the whole thing with Shaq is just being healthy. You can talk about age all you want, but if he' 100 percent healthy, then he's going to dominate.
"It's easy for people to talk about how his game is decreasing because of he's getting older, but I think his health has a lot to do with it."