Call it the Big Surprise.
What planned on being a night for two on the town — 700 miles away in Atlanta to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary — turned into something totally unexpected for my wife, N’Toyia, and myself.
Not long after gracing the TNT set as a studio analyst during the NBA playoffs, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal arrived at the same destination as a certain Texas couple just making it to Hotlanta.
What unfolded over the next half-hour at The Cheesecake Factory could be called taking the cake, as the play-by-play details.
Upon arriving in Atlanta close to sundown thanks to losing an hour after crossing into Georgia and Eastern Standard Time, we immediately unpacked, changed clothes and vowed not to let even the season finales of American Idol and Scandal, and the NBA basketball doubleheader, take our attention away from the special occasion.
But on a night I attempted to be anything but normal — a basketball fan, Lakers lover and reporter — I wound up being myself. I even positioned myself away from the TV screen at the posh restaurant — then showing Game 5 of the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, a game TNT carried. While waiting to order, I decided to sneak a peak at my cell phone to look for Idol results on Twitter (and make sure Candice Glover won as we hoped), while paying little attention to the larger-than-life frame coming up the steps near our seats.
Seconds later, my wife whispered something about “Shaq” being nearby after noticing a young child accompanying him at the table wearing a shirt identical to our son’s. I turned to look the opposite way toward the television, thinking he was still on air, before being warned to “calm down” and not cause a scene. Turns out, the seven-footer, four-time champion, former MVP and soon-to-be Hall of Famer occupied a booth directly across from our table.
Trust me, it is no piece of cake attempting to engage with someone of O’Neal’s stature, even for a person who has interviewed several stars, or like my wife who has performed with her college dance team in New York City on national television at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But the sports-enthusiast pushed to the background as we crossed four state lines — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia — returned to the forefront.
Determined to get proof of the encounter, we prodded our hospitable waitress, who worked some magic that would make the basketball team in Orlando and former Lakers star jealous. Our hopes of a simple photo developed into something more, an invitation to join his table for a group picture.
O’Neal not only accommodated two low-key Texans, but poked fun at our “longevity” and wondered how my wife could put up with my snoring. Speaking of snoring, how could the reporter in me sleep on an opportunity to ask a few questions to a player my father (Harold Wilson) and sports editor (Phil Hicks) can each confirm I talked about in detail for not having enough voice on the TNT set less than 24 hours before seeing him in person.
Shaq shared his thoughts on everything from working with Charles Barkley, the Lakers’ chances at becoming championship contenders again and Kobe Bryant’s attempt to return to greatness after injury.
Sharing the stage with Shaq appears to be as tough as sharing the ball with Bryant. As for Dwight Howard leading the Lakers to greatness as O’Neal did when he guided the same franchise to three straight titles from 2000-2002, Shaq sounded highly doubtful. And as for Bryant, whom he teamed with for the three-peat, he believes the Lakers guard will indeed return to the floor, but sounded skeptical the “Black Mamba” could strike the same fear in opponents as he has during a career featuring five titles and 15 all-star appearances.
As for us, the night with one of the best big men to ever play on the basketball court provided just the exclamation point for a couple married on a quiet Friday morning in a downtown courthouse. Three kids (Kayla, Kyesha, Keyston) and 10 years later, thanks to one shocking night at the Cheesecake Factory, I guess you can say we received our icing on the cake.