MIAMI - The signs are everywhere. From the absence of the dreaded
balcony curtain inside American Airlines Arena to the giant poster on
the outside of the building triumphantly announcing, "Daddy's Home."
is, indeed, one big daddy. Shaquille O'Neal always has had a
larger-than-life persona, perhaps because he is, well, very, very large.
His singular presence on the Miami Heat has awakened a
close-to-comatose basketball situation in Southern Florida and made
American Airlines Arena a happening venue.
fun again," said the Heat's real hoop daddy, the venerable Pat Riley,
whose title - president - pretty much sums up his role on and importance
to the franchise. "The wind is blowing good for us. It's across the
board. He woke up a state, a city, a franchise. He's excited. We're
What's not to get excited about? The first-place Heat are 9-5 as they host the Celtics
tonight. They have the game's most dominant player in the
7-foot-1-inch, 330-pound (or so) O'Neal and one of the game's most
dynamic up-and-comers in guard Dwyane Wade. They're realistically
talking title, and it is solely because of the arrival of Shaq.
not dominating as he once did because, he insists, he doesn't have to.
He won in Los Angeles with over-the-hill players like A.C. Green and Ron
Harper, so he figures he can in Miami with under-the-radar players like
Udonis Haslem and Damon Jones. He doesn't even lead his team in
scoring, and his free throw shooting is still atrocious. One NBA scout
called him "overly unselfish" but added, "He definitely looks
rejuvenated to me."
happens for a reason," shrugged Shaq. "It was good to get away from all
that nonsense [in Los Angeles]. I was trying to preserve the game and
make sure things were done the right way. It didn't work out."
may not work out in Miami, either, but it won't be for lack of effort
or desire. Shaq likes what he sees and what he has. He's taking it nice
and slow this time around, gearing everything toward an extended playoff
"My numbers are down
on purpose because these guys never had no one like me before," he said.
"I'm getting everyone's confidence up. Mine already is at a 9 or 10
because I've done it. Theirs is at a 4 or 5 because they have never done
it. It's all new to them. It'll soon be at 8 or 9 and then, by March
and April, we'll all be at 10."
Riley, "I think he's relishing the fact that he can be the patriarch
here. It's a great time in his life. I think change is good. When you
feel those walls closing in on you, it's time to change before you let
them crush you. And change reared its beautiful face for him."
Escape from LA
course, there's still a part of Shaq that can't and won't let go, that
wonders how it could not have worked out with the Lakers, who traded him
to Miami July 14 for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant.
likes to tell a story using a manufactured term - the Breath Factor -
to drive home his point. He had hoped one day to visit Staples Center
and see his name and retired number in the rafters along with a list of
the many titles he figured he'd win.
bring my kids to the game," he said, "and they'd ask, 'Daddy, who are
those?' Magic and Kareem got five. Jerry West got two. Then I'd show
them, 'See O'Neal? He got six.' Then there's a deep breath. Whoa. I
always thought I was going to retire a Laker great and end my career
There are many, many
people in Southern Florida who are elated that that did not come to
pass. They range from the Heat's increased number of season
ticket-holders to the deep-pocketed owner, Micky Arison, to Riley, to
coach Stan Van Gundy, and to Shaq's new teammates like the well-traveled
Jones, now with his ninth team in just seven seasons.
is the best experience of my basketball life," gushed Jones. "I haven't
had this many open shots since I was a little tyke playing one-on-one.
He makes it so much easier for all of us."
Wade, "He's such a smart guy. He knows what to do. He has opened up a
lot of things for us and given us the confidence that we can win."
was Riley's mind-set when he made the offer to the Lakers. Shaq wanted
out for a number of reasons and Riley felt his offer was far and away
the best. Yes, the Heat had a nice little run at the end of 2003-04,
but, as Riley looked at things, he saw another 3-5 years before he could
realistically think of competing for a title.
"I don't think I have that kind of patience," he said. "I know the city didn't. You had to do it."
everything had broken down in Los Angeles. Coach Phil Jackson was not
re-signed. Owner Jerry Buss, with whom O'Neal said he has never had a
meaningful conversation, made the decision not to extend Shaq and to
rebuild the team around Kobe Bryant, O'Neal's gifted teammate and
grating foil. That was enough for Shaq. He demanded to be traded,
although, as he sees it, it was the Lakers who forced the issue.
programmed to handle any situation," he said. "And I will never let a
situation that wasn't controlled by me break me down. It wasn't
controlled by me that I was traded. It wasn't controlled by me that
[Buss] chose the young fella [Bryant] instead of me. I'm not going to
let that break me down.
being the semi-young guy I am , I looked at my options. And me,
being the semi-young guy I am, I was fortunate enough to still have some
options: like the whole NBA."
refused to go anywhere cold. He thought Orlando might be an option, but
he didn't want to, as he put it, "start over again." Dallas was an
attractive option because it has an owner, Mark Cuban, who spends money.
"The last option," O'Neal said, "was Miami. And Miami has that guy in Dwyane Wade."
The newest disciple
Shaq, Wade is the anti-Kobe. He sees the kid as attentive, solicitous,
properly (but not overly) deferential, and more than happy to ride
shotgun. It's no secret that Wade has exploded in no small part because
teams are focusing on Shaq.
pleasant surprise in all of this," said Riley, "is that the greatness
of Dwyane Wade came to the top a lot quicker than if we hadn't made the
trade. This kid is good."
Heat lead the league in free throw attempts (but are next-to-last in
free throw accuracy), and Wade, who attempted 53 3-pointers last season
in 61 games, has taken only two this season in 12 games.
When Shaq arrived in Miami, he set up a meeting with Wade and explained why this new tandem had to work.
told this guy, 'I always learn from my mistakes,' " O'Neal said. "I had
two pupils [Bryant in LA and Penny Hardaway in Orlando] and it didn't
work out. I told him, 'The mistake I made with them, I won't make with
"I told him
everything. I told him, 'That can't happen between us on the court. That
can't happen between us on a personal level. We can't let the media do
that.' I told him I'm going to be cool, calm, and work hard. He's
already having his best year. It's going to work out. It will work out.
He's having a fabulous year and I want him to have a fabulous year.
see, you always need that other guy. I needed the young fella [Bryant]
to win a championship. But they tried to make it personal. I have a wife
and kids. I don't have time to be personal with another man. I was just
trying to help him be the best player in the world. It didn't work out.
So he wanted me gone."
Tonight's game against the Celtics
will be the eighth home game for the Heat. They've already had four
sellouts; there were only 11 all last season. Miami ranked 24th in
attendance last season, averaging 15,239 per game. The balcony was
curtained off for 40 of the 41 home games, opened only for the April 9
visit of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. This year, the Heat are
averaging 19,439 per game and the top 10 rows of the balcony are for
the court, the Heat are far from invincible, with a 5-5 record over
their last 10 games. Their loss Friday night at Detroit was their first
to an Eastern Conference opponent; they're 1-4 against the West. They've
lost home games to the Mavericks and Trail Blazers.
the Heat are relevant once again and relevant because of Shaq. Wade
recalled how he first learned that he was getting a new teammate - while
preparing for the ESPY Awards. He was sorry to see Odom, Butler, and
Grant go. But, as he put it, "I wasn't sorry for very long. I couldn't
believe it. I was thrilled. I was going to get a chance to play with the
best player in the game."
Shaq, never at a loss for words, couldn't have put it any better himself.
O'Neal's individual statistics so far this season (19.9 points, 11.7
rebounds per game) are comparable with his numbers from 2003-04 with the
Lakers (21.5, 11.4) but his impact on the Miami Heat is apparent: