shawn-kemp-96-all-star-kamikaze-4The 1996 NBA All-Star Game was defined by one man. And his name wasn’t Michael Jordan.

Turning 28 isn’t a milestone birthday. At least not in the way 16, 18, 21, 25, 30, 40, 50 and so on are. Yet, for me, it was.

I turned 28 Feb. 1, and with the gift of seeing another year rang in a slew of realizations. Being 24 months away from 30, only so much time remains to be featured on some publication’s “30 Under 30″ list. It’s been 18 years since officially entering double digits, which in and of itself was a remarkable deal because chances are seeing triple digits isn’t in the cards. Plus, at a whooping 10 years old and with middle school on the horizon the same year, adulthood — my interpretation of it at the time — had officially arrived.

Nevertheless, 1996 also marked the year Martin went downhill with the beginning of its fifth season airing later that fall on Sept. 5. Tupac’s chest cavity was peppered with bullets (two days after episode one) and died (a day after episode two) that same month, which in the years since has proven to be anything but a coincidence.

However, ’96 was filled with infinitely more blessings than burdens. The 1996 NBA All-Star Game ranks near the pinnacle on the list of “thumbs up” moments. Describing life in February ’96 as “euphoric” was an understatement. Four days before turning 10, the Dallas Cowboys captured their third Super Bowl in four seasons, defeating the Steelers 27-17, and Michael Jordan was competing in his first All-Star Game since 1993. And in my association basketball league, I was basically viewed as the prototypical Stephen Curry thanks in part to a wicked outside jumper. The only difference was my dribbling skills were putrid, so in retrospect, perhaps I was more James Jones than Curry.

More importantly, however, all seemed on the up-and-up in the world because all was.

Ask me who and what I remember most from the the ’96 ASG and it all boils down to one man. Not Jordan, but rather Shaquille O’Neal.

Lost in ’90s basketball lore to many who casually follow the game is a well-known fact. O’Neal was as dominating, intimidating and entertaining a figure as MJ (at times). He rapped, acted and broke basketball rims — the unholy trinity of everything bad-ass in the quickly merging worlds of hip-hop and basketball.

Having grown an immense appreciation for The Diesel while MJ was off serving his gambling debt playing minor league baseball, Feb. 11, 1996, was a day where pulling blindly for MJ and Scottie wasn’t number one on my list of priorities, a rarity of a feat as there was in pre-adolescent life. I wanted them to get theirs after such an historic first half of the season (which led to a doubly historic 72-10). Also, the lingering feeling of what happened the prior postseason further continued to cast an unwavering reminder that MJ and Scottie were in the unfamiliar position (since 1990) of climbing up a mountain instead of standing valiantly atop one.

But I wanted Shaq to dominate. Leave a trail of bloody carcasses in his warpath. Make little children cry. Make President Clinton declare a state of emergency. Eighteen years later, I’m still in awe that the son of a gun actually did so.