By Steve Aschburner, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 29 2009 7:49AM
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- It couldn't be a circus -- no calliope. Rock stars? Not sure LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal can relate to the genre or the haircuts.
But something odd, something zany was going on Monday afternoon at the Cleveland Clinics Courts in suburban Cleveland when the lights went out in the Cavaliers' fancy double-gym. A moment of symbolism that stretched into an hour, it was too big and too unusual to mean nothing on the day James and O'Neal officially suited up as teammates.
Quick quiz: The sudden blackout halfway through the Cavs' media day session was:
a) A bad omen, lights-out as in military taps for the ballyhooed pairing of the game's best player and its biggest;
b) O'Neal, massive as ever, stepping between the room's light source and the assembled media reps as if blotting out the sun. Welcome, Big Eclipse!
c) An indication that utility bills can slip through the cracks when you're writing out checks to pay two superstars a combined $35.7 million for the coming season;
d) A glimpse one year into the Cavaliers' future when James will be gone as a free agent and darkness will again reign over the franchise;
e) None of the above.
Cleveland guard Mo Williams would have chosen "e," if only because he got a look at the duo behind closed doors for about 20 minutes with the lights still on. "Those two in the locker room, we'll have a lot of fun, I know that, off the court," Williams shared. "Shaq is running around the locker room talking about his shorts are too small, he's running around pulling his shorts up. Just some of the stuff like that -- it's day one. Day one of the madness."
Do madness and championship-caliber basketball mix? Dennis Rodman has five rings that say it does. So do some of the tales that came out of O'Neal's title runs with Kobe Bryant, coach Phil Jackson and the rest of the Lakers in Los Angeles. Besides, the madness that people expect from the now larger-than-life Cavaliers is amusing, not alarming. It has an equal chance of releasing pressure and keeping everyone loose as it does of distracting, disrupting or derailing.
"I don't look at it as added pressure," coach Mike Brown said. "Maybe because I've been through four years of playing with LeBron. Whenever LeBron plays, even if there is not another marquee name like Shaquille O'Neal with him, there is going to be the 'pressure to win.' So I don't look at it as too much outside pressure that is going to cave in and force us to fold. We, as competitors, put pressure on ourselves because we want to succeed, we want to be the best."
Of course that is the goal. Before the first ball gets rolled out at Tuesday morning's practice, before Brown and his players fit not just O'Neal but all their new pegs (Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Leon Powe, rookie Danny Green) into old holes, the focus for 2009-10 -- the fixation -- will be on what happens nine months from now. If acquiring O'Neal on draft night for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, cash and a second-round pick gets James his first ring, the big man his fifth and Cleveland its first pro sports title in 45 years, it will be an obvious, unqualified success.
If not, well, that might be a success too. More about that in a moment.
The buzz with O'Neal in the building was palpable, even if James seemed a little subdued, less engaged than usual when sitting for reporters (hey, it's been a long, exhausting summer, what with a world Nike tour/movie marketing campaign). The tendency was to imagine James getting his turn with Shaq the way first Bryant and then Dwyane Wade got theirs -- and their championships -- while forgetting that O'Neal is 37 now. He has averaged 16.2 points and 8.4 rebounds (his career numbers are 24.7 and 11.2) while missing almost one game for every two he has played, since the Heat's title in 2006.
"He was a little more athletic in Los Angeles," James conceded, when I asked him how "his" Shaq differs from Kobe's or D-Wade's. "He's more wise. He's a much better player now -- any time you play more games, you become more better and understand the game more. He's still dominant, no matter if it was in '94 or now in 2009."
Maybe dominant enough, anyway. O'Neal even in his twilight can give Cleveland its best low-post presence in recent memory, physically punish opponents without even trying and force rivals to game plan for someone besides James. He seems to understand, too, that there won't be any "vs." to this the way there was with Bryant, two alpha dogs fighting over one bone. It won't even be him yielding to Wade. This time, he is the one in the sidekick role and, so far, he gets it. It is, obviously, a tad early and O'Neal always could get antsy about a contract extension. But James will win any PR throwdowns and O'Neal has a legacy to preserve.
"I'm 37 years old, it isn't my time anymore," O'Neal said once his interview session was moved to the team's weight room, where the power was back on. "I had my time and I did what I did. I'm not one of those players that always thinks it is his time. It would not be advantageous for me to take 30 shots a game when you have a guy like [LeBron]. We'll get him the ball and let him do what he does and when he drops it off to me, I'll do my job.
"It is [LeBron's] team and he's going to have the ball the most and it is our job to make him look good. I don't have to say it, every team that has a great 1-2 punch with a guard and a big man, the guard has always been that guy and the big man has been the other guy. At this point in my career I accept that."
Let's face it, as large as O'Neal is, the Big Elephant In The Room is James' future -- win, lose or miss the 2010 Finals completely. That's where the O'Neal acquisition might pay off even if it doesn't pay off. On a micro level, the veteran big man might break down, the Celtics might reclaim the East, the Lakers could repeat or any of a dozen other scenarios could stymie the Cavaliers' ambitions. On a macro level, though, Cleveland's management has shown it is willing to do whatever it takes to build, maintain and upgrade a winner around James, which really could settle the leave-or-stay issue for him. After all, the money and the life opportunities -- from Hollywood roles to Warren Buffet chinwags -- already are there.
"When the deal was real, they gave me a call and asked me what I thought about it," said James, who was consulted by GM Danny Ferry on the Shaq trade in February when it first came up and again in June. "I don't want to be up here and ask like he's any old player. He's Shaquille O'Neal. ... To have him as part of this franchise, to have him as part of my team, is going to be great."
Now and later?
"Next summer is next summer, and when it gets here, I'll deal with it," James said. "The [contract] talks have been going on for how long now, and it's never been a distraction for me or my teammates. This season is going to be great. When next summer gets here, we'll deal with it then."
Some suspect the Cavaliers already have, by what they've done for this season.
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