This is a staph infection

They can kill people, and athletes are some of their favorite victims

THE DAY BEFORE the Celtics opened training camp, a nurse peered up at Shaq and delicately swirled a cotton swab inside each of his ample nostrils. The purpose was to determine the threat he posed to his new club. You'd think the team would have sussed that out before signing the 18-year vet, but this mission wasn't about the possibility of the NBA's oldest and beefiest jester undermining the game plan or locker room chemistry. No, this was about Shaq infecting the Celtics literally, with an invisible intruder that could turn Delonte West's big toe into a pus-filled plum or Paul Pierce's middle finger into an inflamed sausage or his elbow into an angry grapefruit.

All of which happened four years ago, hospitalization and surgeries included. As disturbing as it all was, the situation could have been far, far worse, so the Celtics want, at all costs, to avoid a repeat. Hence, the Q-tips up the nose. "We still don't know where it came from," says trainer Ed Lacerte. But at least they now know what "it" is.

The proper name is Staphylococcus aureus, but like Shaquille O'Neal himself, its Q-rating allows for informality: staph. Unlike Shaq, though, there's nothing funny about staph, a bacteria that's harmless until it finds a break in the skin; even a paper cut -- Pierce's finger injury -- will do. After that, all bets are off. In the States, staph has put more people in the hospital than swine flu, and once in the bloodstream, its scariest version can be deadlier than HIV.