Shaq Digging Miami, D-Wade


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."

This 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.

   "It's 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 excited."

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.

He's 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."

"Everything 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."

It 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 run.

"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."

Added 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

Of 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.

He 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.

"I'd 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."

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.

"This 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."

Added 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."

That 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."

Meanwhile, 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.

"I'm 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.

"Me, being the semi-young guy I am [32], 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."

He 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

To 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.

"The 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."

The 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.

"I 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 you.'

"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.

"You 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."

Main attraction

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 season ticket-holders.

On 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.

But 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.



Shaquille 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:


FLCeltsFan said...

Good to see the right year for this series.

So sad that by the time the Celtics got Shaq he was on his last leg (literally).

Lex said...

Kind of glad shaq stuck to kobe and the lakers...

FLCeltsFan said...

I like it any time Kobe and the Lakers come out on the short end of anything :)

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