Even Shaquille O'Neal got overshadowed by a bit of controversy at the spelling bee.
O'Neal walked onstage Friday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and challenged last year's winner to a spell-off, but he didn't generate anywhere near the passion created by a decision to suspend the semifinals so there would be enough spellers left for ABC's prime-time broadcast Friday night.
The result was 10 spellers advancing to the championship broadcast, including six who didn't have to spell a word in the interrupted round. Essentially, the alphabetical order of the U.S. states determined which spellers got to move on the marquee event.
"I would rather have five finalists, than five who didn't deserve it," said 13-year-old Elizabeth Platz of Shelbina, Mo., one of the four spellers who spelled a word correctly before the round was stopped. "I think it was unfair."
Elizabeth's remarks were greeted with applause from parents in the hotel ballroom where the bee is held.
It's one of the pitfalls of the growing popularity of the bee, which has to yield to the constraints of its television partners. There were 19 spellers left at the start of the round, which was too many for prime-time. But when the round turned out to be brutal — nine of the first 13 misspelled — ABC was on the verge of having too few.
"I don't feel bad at all for giving these children the opportunity," bee director Paige Kimble said. "Do I wish we could give it to 19? Yes, certainly, but that's not practical in a two-hour broadcast window. We know it's unpopular and we don't like to do it, but sometimes you can get into a position where that's exactly what you have to do."
Kimble stressed that the move was within the rules and that the round would pick up where it left off. Only the spellers remaining at the end of the round would officially be declared finalists.
Still, the episode renewed the debate over whether the bee has come too close to selling its soul to television.
"They already have," said 14-year-old two-time bee participant Sonia Schlesinger, who represented Washington, D.C., last year and Japan this year. "It kind of seems like the bee should be more about spelling. We're just here to spell words — not about TV."
Even O'Neal unintentionally got caught up in the furor — in the name of TV footage.
The 7-foot-1 center created a buzz when he threw down his challenge to 14-year-old Kavya Shivashankar, the 2009 champion. Reporters were not allowed to watch the showdown, which was taped for O'Neal's "Shaq Vs." reality show, but O'Neal then posed with the 10 remaining spellers who were unofficially being billed as "finalists" — adding more fuel to the debate over whether it was fair for all of them to be there.
The 10 spellers were the survivors of 273 that began the week at the 83rd annual bee. The champion receives the huge trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Two of the three favorites failed to make it to the finals. Thirteen-year-old Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va., who accumulated some 20,000 note cards to help him study, was stumped by "fustanella" — a skirt worn by men in the Balkans.
It was a doozy of a word, with roots that went from Latin to Italian to Greek to Italian to English.
"The Greeks must have messed it up," Tim said with a wry smile after getting big hugs from his mother.
Returning finalist and four-time bee competitor Neetu Chandak was given a second chance after misspelling "paravane" — a torpedo-shaped underwater protective device. The 14-year-old from Seneca Falls, N.Y., who finished eighth last year, was recalled to the stage and reinstated after the judges decided that she had received an ambiguous answer to her question about the word's origins.
But she was later eliminated by the astronomy term "apogalacteum."
"I have to thank my mom for that because she was the one who protested to get me back in," said Neetu, who said she plans to take up tennis now that her spelling days are over. "I still got a pretty good ranking."
Associated Press Writer Lauren Sausser contributed to this report.
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