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David Aldridge

Shaquille O'Neal was the man who bridged the gap between the Jordan era and today's LeBron/Kobe era.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Big Retirement: Shaq leaves indelible mark on NBA

Posted Jun 6 2011 10:13AM

The Big Man opened up his home last week for one last get-together, in the city he never really left -- though, of course, he famously did.

Shaquille O'Neal officially retired on Friday, making the announcement from his suburban Orlando home, offering explanations, reflections and some contrition for all that transpired in his 19 NBA seasons, when he may have been the most popular player in the game, confidant to (most) teammates and a force that hadn't been seen in the game since the early days of Wilt Chamberlain.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was strong, but he was silent; Shaq was loud and boistrous and profane more than a little, sucking people into his celebrity like wind currents through a jet engine.

Yes, it's The Finals, and the hope is not to take away from the battle between the Heat and Mavs, which has been terrific so far. And you wonder if the timing of Shaq's retirement announcement last week on Twitter wasn't a coincidence, as the big man calls attention to himself one last time during The Finals that he once dominated. But even if that's so, it's worth it to take a few minutes to recognize the NBA life and times of the man who was a crucial conduit between the age of Michael Jordan and the age of LeBron James.

Kobe Bryant may well have been the best player of that era, relentless in his preparation, brilliant in his play and unsparing in his criticism of those who didn't meet his championship standards. But O'Neal was the guy who brought joy and laughs, who brought kids and casual fans into the tent with how he played on the court and how he tried to inhale life off it. Tim Duncan was O'Neal's equal as a big man, with four titles of his own in San Antonio, and no one would dispute his seriousness of purpose. He won't be ignored by history. But Shaq was the guy who threw the party that everyone wanted to go after school.

In taking a look back at his career, I wanted to do it oral history style, the way Terry Pluto so brilliantly captured the spirit of the ABA in his book Loose Balls by block quoting the interviewees, letting them speak for themselves. So let me get out of the way and let these people talk.

NBA commissioner David Stern: He was a giant. He's physically imposing, he has an imposing smile, and in the game, he imposed his will. And he has done it for quite a long time. It's been a great run, and we're going to miss him greatly and we hope we can find ways to keep him involved in the game.

O'Neal was the first pick in the 1992 Draft, going to the Orlando Magic, a franchise that had floundered in its first three seasons in the league since coming in as an expansion team in 1989 with Minnesota. The team was a collective 107 games under .500 when O'Neal came aboard and quickly began turning things around, leading the Magic to a 20-game improvement his rookie season, when he was named NBA Rookie of the Year.

Scott Skiles, now the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, was O'Neal's point guard in Orlando and one of the first talented players to play alongside him in the pros. (The following year, the Magic would again get the first pick in the Draft and worked out a deal with Golden State that netted them Penny Hardaway; the Shaq-Penny duo led Orlando to the Finals in 1995, where they lost to Houston.)

Barry Cooper was the beat writer for the Orlando Sentinel who covered the raw talent his first season.

Even though Skiles and Shaq would get into a sort-of fight in 1994, the point guard who respected hard workers above anyone else saw a kindred spirit in the the big man.

'A Can't Miss' in Orlando

Scott Skiles: Shaq was a serious worker, competitor, a really serious worker. I don't think he got enough credit for that, and I know that sounds crazy, because he's getting all of this credit now! But Shaq was serious and he really worked hard on his game. For instance, we got to pick him, and he came in. You don't have to be a genius to know that he was a can't miss. But he came in in September, came in early, when we were all playing, and got right after it. He was a hard-playing guy all of his career. At the time we also had Stanley Roberts, who he played with at LSU. He was just as big and really athletic and talented...there were a lot of battles between those two guys. (Roberts) had a silly side and the not-serious side...the first pickup game I ever saw the guy in person, Matt Guokas (then Orlando's coach) was sitting on the side and I came over, and I said '(Bleep), this guy is incredible.'

Barry Cooper: I covered Shaq his rookie season and even then he was like this bright little boy trapped in a giant's body. I remember my old sports editor, Larry Guest, asking Shaq if he could ride with Shaq from Shaq's house to the Orlando Arena for a home game. Larry wanted to write a column about what life is like for Shaq before a game. Clearly, Shaq wasn't as media savvy then as he is now. He looked at my sports editor with a puzzled look on his face and said, "What's the matter with your car?"

Scott Skiles: One time we were on the bus and he made a bet in the back of the bus with one of the young guys that people wouldn't recognize him when he got off the bus. And the kid didn't know any better and said okay, took the bet. And then Shaq pulled out a long-haired wig. And by God, he walked off that bus and nobody noticed him.

Barry Cooper: Another time Shaq cancelled a promise to talk to me after a practice because he had to get a haircut. I asked if I could tag along -- even follow him in his car. He actually thought about it for a moment but then said, 'No, I don't want you to know where I get my hair cut.' Of course, everybody knew where Shaq got his haircuts, and I found out later he had an open account at the place, with literally dozens of little kids signed up to get free cuts on his tab.

The Shaq of today is a media superstar, and he showed the instincts in his early days as a pro. He is genuine now, but back then you could tell he was really, really genuine. The young Shaq was very cool.

O'Neal got his first real taste of celebrity and fame in Orlando, maximizing his oversized but friendly public persona -- "a cross between Bambi and the Terminator," his former agent, Leonard Armato, liked to say -- into shoe commercials for Reebok, Pepsi, Spaudling, Kenner Toys and Scoreboard trading cards, along with rap albums and forgettable movies like "Kazaam!," where he played a 7-foot genie. Some believed O'Neal needed to spend more time working on his game (a refrain heard throughout his career, for different reasons) but by his third season in the league he led the NBA in scoring and was third in rebounding. Perhaps O'Neal actually wanted to be noticed more; he was famously rankled by a 1996 poll in the Sentinel in which fans said he wasn't worth the $120 million he was seeking when he became a free agent later that year. At any rate, he was already a force in the league, tearing down basket supports and getting the Magic to the 1995 Finals.

Scott Skiles: You know how Shaq comes across the paint, and if he feels you, he spins off for the lob? When he first got there (to Orlando) he kept telling me 'Look for it; I'm gonna spin.' And for whatever reason, I was reluctant to toss it up there. And then in a game, for whatever reason, I threw it up there as high as I could, and he went up there and slammed it down.

The Magic made a killer mistake in their negotiations with O'Neal; while Jerry West cleared the decks in 1996 for the Lakers, creating enough cap room to offer O'Neal a $121 million contract, Orlando dawdled. By the time they agreed to match the deal, it was too late; O'Neal left for Tinseltown and left Orlando with nothing.

Success in L.A.

Scott Skiles: I don't know why he left, but I know that Shaquille doesn't do things without thinking through them. Whatever he was doing was well thought out.

West had already manuevered in the '96 Draft to get a teenage phenom from the Philly suburbs named Kobe Bryant in a trade. Now with O'Neal, the Lakers had two potential superstars who complemented each other's games in spectacular fashion. Bryant had a couple of years of growing pains in L.A., but O'Neal was entering his prime, his full destructive powers beginning to come together.

Lenny Wilkens was O'Neal's coach both for the All-Star Game in 1994 and for the U.S. men's Olympic team that won the gold medal in Atlanta in 1996.

Reggie Miller was Shaq's teammate on the Olympic team, which also featured future Hall of Famers David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the few players O'Neal seemed to be in awe of.

Lenny Wilkens: You know on All-Star Saturday, you don't really do anything. Just one or two things so we look organized on Sunday. So I had the guys over, and after we got through what we wanted to do, we were shooting. And I was watching him. And I said to him, 'You know, Shaq, if you learn the drop step, with your strength and quickness, they'll never be able to stop you from getting to the basket; they'll foul you all the time.' And I showed it to him. And he tried it a couple of times. And then he said, 'Coach, you ever play at this level?' And Scottie Pippen heard him. And Scottie went crazy. True story. Scottie started telling everybody that. And then the next day he comes in, and he has a camera, and he wants to take a picture of me and him. And he says, 'I talked to my dad, and he said you were bad.'

Reggie Miller: Between Sir Charles and Shaq, made for the best time in '96.. Both kept the bus trips and practices fun and light. At that time Shaq wanted to show David Robinson and Hakeem he was the best center. So imagine how practices were ... He was throwing Hakeem and David around like rag dolls!! Only people he couldn't move was Charles and Karl (Malone).

Lenny Wilkens: When I had him in the Olympics, he was receptive. Whatever to make the team better. I enjoyed him...Shaq has a lot of pride. He wants to show people he was pretty good. Back then he had the quickness to go with the strength.

In 2000, the Lakers hired Phil Jackson, who came from Chicago with six championships to his credit, to try and get the most out of O'Neal and Kobe. The Lakers had only reached the conference finals once in the four years O'Neal had been in L.A. when Jackson came aboard. That season, in 1999-2000, the Lakers won 67 regular season games, blew a 3-1 lead to Portland in the Western finals but then staged one of the biggest postseason rallies in league history, coming back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Blazers in Game 7 -- a rally completed with what can only be called Video a Shaq Spike of an alley-oop Bryant seemed to be throwing toward Sacramento. That one comeback ignited a dynasty that went on to win three straight NBA titles and marked the Shaq-Kobe Lakers as one of the great teams in league history.

Greg Foster was a Laker in 2000-01, but before that, he was a fiery backup center on the Jazz teams that ousted O'Neal from the playoffs early in his L.A. career. Foster joined the Lakers (and played his only season in L.A.) the year they won their second straight championship with a five-game destruction of Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, a Finals which featured O'Neal at his devastating best: 33 points, 15.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocks against Dikembe Mutombo, generally considered the league's premier defensive center and that year's Defensive Player of the Year.

Chris Webber and Mike Bibby starred for the Lakers' nemesis at the time, the Sacramento Kings, who played them three straight years in the playoffs, culminating in the famous -- infamous -- 2002 Western Conference finals series that went seven games before L.A. won in overtime at Sacramento's Arco Arena. Tyson Chandler, now starting for the Mavericks in the Finals. was an 18-year-old NBA rookie in 2001.

Greg Foster: He's the best teammate I ever had. A great guy. And when I was on the other side of the ball, an adversary, it was hard to hate him then. I had to trick myself into disliking him. He was always a great guy, fun-loving, practical joker. When I look back on my playing days, that's what I miss most, those bus rides, guys cracking on each other. Definintely accessible. When we won that championship he bought everybody Rolexes. He had got the MVP that year so he got everybody Rolexes. He always had a kind word for my kids. If I was in the gym late one night and brought my kids, and he was in there practicing free throws, he always would play with my kids. My oldest daughter was his girlfirend. Just that kind of guy.

Mike Bibby: Our main goal when we were in Sacramento was to stop Shaq. We knew Kobe was going to do what he had to do, but our main thing was to stop Shaq. Getting there, double-teaming, making sure he didn't have no easy looks and just trying to make it tough for him. His presence out there is just ... I remember like it was yesterday, going out there and seeing how big of a person he was, and stuff like that.

Chris Webber: We knew Kobe was going to score 40, 50 points, but Shaq, we knew he could foul out all of our big guys. And he was the most dominant player I ever played against. I don't want to say anything misleading about losing, but having stayed in Sacramento, and knowing it was a me-against-the-world mentality, I felt that losing to him, Kobe and Phil Jackson was the only way you can lose. Especially with a young, upstart team, losing on a last-second shot and a questionable game (Game 6). But Shaq, I had a bruised sternum playing against him, two cracked ribs from taking charges, and I had to play center against him and he weighed 100 pounds more than me.

Tyson Chandler: When I first came into the league (in 2001), it was just mind-boggling playing against him, how big he was, how athletic he was, and how light he was on his feet. He's such a big guy. He definitely changed the game ... I was with the Bulls, and it was just scary. It was like you felt like he can kill you with the one elbow, and at the other end, he can embarass you if you let him get it anywhere near the rim. It was fun, but it was moreso, I was in awe to be on the floor with Shaq and Kobe than anything.

Chris Webber: To me, he was more athletic, in my opinion, than Dwight Howard. He was stronger, the best rebounder I've ever played against. And more than anybody, because he was limited, but more than anybody, he gave you a strong dose of two feet off the paint was all he was going. He kept saying he was the most dominant, it was because he kept doing the same thing, and you couldn't stop him. His game evolved, 'cause he had a jump shot and a turnaround to the baseline. But those were all he needed to be that powerful.

The Lakers' threepeat was even more impressive considering their two franchise players, O'Neal and Bryant, were in the midst of feuding with one another. Bryant wanted Shaq to work harder, both on his conditioning and his game; Shaq wanted Bryant to feed him the ball more, considering he was a 60 percent shooter from the floor and a three-time Finals MVP.

Greg Foster: There ws obviously a quiet divide amongst the team. It was kind of an uneasy situation to be in as a teammate. But ultimately you've got two young superstars, two young guns, clashing. It wasn't as bad as everybody made it out to be. Back then, the two of them probably disagreed, they bumped heads. But as a teammate, you lend an ear. I remember Kobe talking to me about it. And I talked to the Big Fella. It's a misconception that the teammates have to get along. There was a healthy respect for each other's abilitiy. And with the role players we had on that team, we were able to deflect a lot of that. Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, guys that were more veterans, we were able to overcome a lot of that.

Shaq would pick verbal fights with the Kings, calling them the Sacramento "Queens" for their flopping ways, especially his nemesis, Vlade Divac.

Mike Bibby: I think it was all a ploy. You see the way he talks, and his personality and stuff. I don't think he meant any of it. That's just the way he is.

Chris Webber: I don't want to start nothing with him, but I always felt I played Shaq good. Because I had long arms and I went for the low block. So what I wanted to do was to keep my arm out in front of him, on his back, dig at his dribbles, tell the people to come help me if I needed help. I learned a lot from Scottie Pippen, checking me that way. You never got comfortable. So I didn't want to give him a comfort zone. And, you want to move out of the way because you don't want to flop. Because you really can't; he's that strong. I didn't want to front him because he was taller than me, and I didn't trust the help on the other side...

He was mad (when Divac flopped). But we were mad. We felt the refs never believed that we were playing good defense, because Vlade and Scot P (Pollard) would flop a lot. I told Vlade to stop flopping so much. I hate the flop. But Vlade's my man. He did what he did to make it work. But I hate the flop. I think you should get a technical every time you flop.

Inevitably, Shaq wore out his welcome in L.A., with fans siding with Bryant and ownership and coaches growing tired of O'Neal's demands for more money and his inability to stay healthy. Owner Jerry Buss opted to pay Bryant a max contract rather than O'Neal, who asked for a trade after Los Angeles was upset in the 2004 Finals by Detroit. The Lakers granted his request, as he agreed to be sent to Miami in July, 2004 for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and first- and second-round picks.

Micky Arison was, and is, the Heat's owner.

Keyon Dooling, now in Milwaukee, was a backup guard when the Heat made the Eastern Conference finals in 2005.

And Dwyane Wade had just come off of his rookie season in Miami -- a good one, in which the Heat made the playoffs and had a good showing in the first round. But with the Diesel in town, expectations grew.

Headed to South Beach

Greg Foster: A memory? I coiuld say when he broke my damn foot before the damn playoffs, but that's not a happy one. He just stepped on it. And he got in foul trouble every damn series and I'm sitting there with a broken foot. Phil asked me if I could play just three minutes a game. I said I'd try.

Dwyane Wade: I was wet behind the ears when he came in. A lot of things that he said, his actions of pushing me forward, gave me the confidence to say 'I'm ready now.' I can't let him down. He's coming off of playing with some of the greats to win championships, and he believes in me. I couldn't let him down. I wanted to perform, not only for myself and for my family, but I wanted to make him proud as well, because he said, when he came in, that it was my team, and he was going to let me lead it, and he did.

Micky Arison: He was great to be around. I loved having him on the team. He had an incredible sense of humor, an incredible sense of marketing -- both marketing himself and marketing the game. He was a joy to be around.

Keyon Dooling: I had the opportunity to play with Shaq (in 2004-05). Outside of his basketball ability, and his personality, he was awesome, just awesome to be around. He treated everybody with a great deal of respect. He made me feel like I was a part of the team. He invited us to family events. He was a vet. He was a good vet. And I love Shaq and I wish him well in his next career.

Dwyane Wade: I wouldn't be the player I am without him. And I always give him credit. I got the opportunity to play with one of the greatest players to ever play this game. And I'm truly humbled by that.

Miami made the Eastern Conference finals in O'Neal's first season, losing on its home court in Game 7 to the defending champion Pistons. Early the following season, in a decision almost no one believed was completely his own, then-coach Stan Van Gundy resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Out of the president's box came Pat Riley, who'd won four championships running the Showtime Lakers and who had gotten the Knicks to the 1994 Finals. With his "15 Strong" motto, Riley rode the Lakers and their veteran group to the Finals. After falling behind Dallas 2-0, Wade went insane, finishing with a Finals average of 34.7 points, including 97 free throws in six games, and the Heat won four in a row to capture the championship -- O'Neal's fourth.

Dwyane Wade: He empowered me. I was 22 years old when he came to Miami. Just came off of a good rookie year. And I kind of had to step up immediately and be more than just a good player. I had to be a leader and, in a sense, try to be a great player right away. It was a little pressure that came with it, but it was a great opportunity, and I tried to seize it.

Miami's championship window was only open one year. The next season the Heat were swept in the first round by Chicago, and O'Neal soon began hinting things weren't as rosy between he and Riley as before, and injuries began to seriously limit his effectiveness. In February, 2008, he was traded to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, as the Suns' president, Steve Kerr, gambled that the 34-year-old O'Neal could give them the low-post presence they needed to get over the hump in the West. But first, they had to fix O'Neal's body and try to adjust his broken free throw form.

Aaron Nelson is the Suns' head athletic trainer.

Phil Weber, now with Mike D'Antoni in New York, was the assistant coach in Phoenix tasked with trying to get O'Neal straight at the foul line.

The Big Shaqtus

Aaron Nelson: The first time I was doing manual therapy with Shaq, he was sweating and yelling right from the beginning and he made a fist and gave a swing. It ended up being a fake swing and didn't make contact with me (obviously), but since it was the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect. The manual therapy can be pretty painful and he went on to endure a year and a half of the "torture." However, he listened to everything we needed him to do (although he would challenge it occasionally to see if we would change).

Phil Weber: He just wanted to fit in. Especially in the middle of the year, I'm so sensitive to changing anything. And also, I was not naive to the fact that he's probably had about 30, I don't know, pick a number, of coaches that have tried to help him in the past. I was surprised at how eager he was and how hard he worked at it. There were nighttime sessions when I'd go back. We'd do it at practice and then I'd go back. We did a lot of those. I always tried to simplify it for guys, path to the ball. He had shot much more of a line drive than I would prefer. Those are the two things we talked about, instead of extending that elbow, just lift it. And he bought in. He was so funny. Whenever he would make a couple, and he had some success with the line that year, and he would run down and look at me like only Shaq could do. Obviously as a coach, it makes you feel good. We went 15-5 with him. People forget we were 15-5 that year and we would have figured it out. Grant Hill got hurt and that really hurt us. We were snakebit against San Antonio for whatever reason, with guys getting knocked into the scorer's table and two guys getting suspended, and Steve Nash getting busted open with two minutes to go. That was one of the things that we were judged by. We were pretty good. If we had won that Game 1 (against the Spurs in the 2008 playoffs) like we should have, everything changes.

Aaron Nelson: Having taken apart some of the things from my training room (crutches and other metal things) he went on to build his own "massage' tool. The first version was built in Denver when we got in around 1 a.m. He went straight to Wal-Mart in a cab to buy a Black and Decker electric jigsaw. He returned around 3am and showed up at our breakfast meeting at 11 a.m, having had maybe a couple hours of sleep. He stayed up all night to build the tool, attaching a tennis ball to the end of the saw. The point is that it made the tennis ball move up and down at a high speed and he could use it on his legs as a massage tool. Believe it or not, it actually worked. So much so, he ended up building a bigger, better version several months later. This had the same tennis ball component, but this time it was attached to a large Black and Decker (some type of drill) that had speeds of 1 to 10. It took two hands to hold, but it also worked very effectively on his 7-foot-1, 345-pound frame.

In 28 games with Phoenix that season, O'Neal averaged a double-double -- 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds -- and shot 61 percent from the floor, 51 percent from the foul line. The Suns lost in the first round to their old enemy, San Antonio, and D'Antoni was fired after the playoffs. Free throws were the bane of the big man's professional life, despite his constant refrain that he would make them when they counted.

Steve Kerr: As for his impact in Phoenix, he was great in the community and fans loved him. If we had won in the playoffs with him and had more success, he would have been a huge sensation, but our fans were understandably frustrated with our lack of success with him.

Chris Webber: I remember myself, it was funny, one year we played them, it was myself, Chucky Brown, and a guard. For days in practice, we spent on how to foul him. 'Cause it doesn't make sense if you (don't) foul him and he makes two (on a basket); you know he's going to miss the free throw. And you, he preached this a lot and people didn't see it, you had to flagrant foul him. I flagrant fouled him and they never called it, but you had to do it; he was that strong. So we worked on grabbing fingers, grabbing wrists and grabbing shoulders.

Phil Weber: Dealing with shooting, it's so psychological. I could always sense when he was going to make them, because you could see the swagger in his eyes. He internalized a lot of it ...

Whenever you deal with great shooters, the standards you set are obviously much, much higher. We just wanted to have success in a relaxed way, and we just tried to reinforce it. I didn't want with him any negative connotation, like if you tried to make 10 in a row and you weren't even close, it could be demoralizing. We would never go there. We were doing something that I don't necessarily like to do at all, change mid-season. And if truth be told, I think he started shooting a little better the following year, a little like Amar'e (Stoudemire), and Amar'e we changed midseason. You usually see it the next season because it's more engrained in your mind how you shoot it. He worked hard at it. I felt so bad for hm, because it just wasn't happening, at least not at an 80 or 90 percent way.

Aaron Nelson: The summer after we traded for him, I went to Orlando with my wife and 1 1/2 year old son. My wife and son hung around the hotel while I would go to Shaq's house to treat him twice a day. Two things that came out of that trip that reflected on who Shaq is as a person and an athlete. First, he invited my family to his house for a 4th of July party, being attended by about 10 of his family members and only a few friends. We had no plans on going to his home for his annual fireworks/4th of July festivities, but he insisted we come. He made all of us feel like we were part of his family and made sure we always felt comfortable. On the last day there, I gave him some specific corrective exercise to do until he got back to Phoenix. I left the house, not sure if he would actually do them. Having forgot something in his house, I went back in a few minutes later, only to see him actually doing the exercises in his office. He was actually doing them!

The Suns' new coach, Terry Porter, planned to run a more conventional halfcourt offense, but that ran counter to the Suns' strengths, with Steve Nash pushing the ball, Stoudemire finishing in transition or Jared Dudley and others shooting threes. Porter only lasted half a season before being fired, with Alvin Gentry taking over. Phoenix rallied and finished 46-36, but didn't make the playoffs, and O'Neal was sent to Cleveland on Draft night 2009 for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and a second-round pick.

Steve Kerr: I would say that we got pretty much what we expected. He came in and gave us a big emotional lift in the locker room early, he played well for us and gave us a chance against the teams with bigs in the West. We didn't think he'd be dominant, nor did we need him to be. But we hoped he could help us get over the hump, and it didn't happen. It wasn't his fault - we swung for the fences and missed.

The Cleveland Years

In Cleveland, O'Neal was clearly second banana to LeBron James, and stayed in the background most of the season, averaging just 11.5 points per game. But he still shot 51 percent from the floor, and when he returned to the lineup after suffering a broken hand in time for the playoffs, the Cavaliers looked ready to challenge for a title.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas played most of last season with O'Neal, splitting minutes with him at center -- and even, on occasion, playing with him on the court together.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas: I really enjoyed picking his brain. People don't realize he has a high basketball IQ. He understands the game really well, and offensively and defensively he knows the game. As a big guy, it was fun to pick his brain a little bit, to see what he thinks about this or that. More than anything, that, not surprised me, but I tried to take advantage of that. He's been to the Olympics, and NBA championships and everything else, that I have not been able to achieve. So it was fun to pick his brain...defensively, it's mostly just his size, and his presence, and how he intimidates people. But offensively, it's always kind of guards against bigs on the team. The guards think the bigs don't do their job, and the bigs think the guards didn't do their job. So it was fun for a change to have him on my side, because nobody was messing with us. Nobody was messing with the bigs. The bigs were just fine. If anything, we sent Shaq out in the team meetings, and it would be taken care of.

The Cavaliers took care of Chicago in the first round, but the second round will live in Cleveland lore as one of the more inexplicable meltdowns in that city's sordid sports history. Ahead 2-1 over Boston, the Cavs were smoked in three straight games, losing in stunning fashion to the Celtics, with James a seeming bystander to his team's immolation. O'Neal stayed quiet, though he continued to insist he could be effective if he were given the ball more often. But the physical problems that plagued him were still there.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas: For most NBA players, I think you go through ,the season is so long, you go through stretches where you're jovial and joking around, and then you go through some stretches where you're tired and beat up and you're quiet and into yourself. Unless you're somebody like Eddie House, with that constant energy and moving. But Shaq was, always whether he was in the weight room, training, getting treatment--he had hip problems when he was with us, so they always would be in there for an hour or two hours before the game, and they would just constantly (be) working, massage, stretch, try to get him moving.

Once James went to Miami, O'Neal wound up in Boston, where he would try to stay healthy for one last run at a title, hoping to be the hub and strength of a wheel dominated by the Celtics' Big Four of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.The Cs needed rebounding and low-post defense, and that was something team president Danny Ainge and Coach Doc Rivers thought the now 38-year-old Shaq could still provide -- provided he could remain on the floor long enough. He suffered a bruised knee early in the season, followed by a inflamed right achilles suffered in early February. When he came back from that, he popped his calf late in the regular season against Detroit.

Last Stop on the Ride: Boston

Doc Rivers: People have no idea what Shaq did to try to get back on the floor. He worked his butt off. He really wanted this. He knew what our record was in games he played over 25 minutes. He also knew after the Perk (Kendrick Perkins) trade we were depending on him. I really believe Shaq gave himself to the team. For the first time in his life he was not the center of attention on the team. He was a role player. That's a huge change. I thought he not only accepted it, he actually embraced it. He wanted to go out on top. The difference is he wanted to go out on top with his team.

Danny Ainge: A lot of our guys, like Rondo and some of the younger players, had grown up watching Shaq. I talked to our guys and they all wanted to play with him...Our defense was just as good as it had been, but our offense was the best it had been in four years. After a game Shaq would come by and say 'You know, I only got six points and five rebounds, and I can do a lot more than that.' And we'd say 'But our offense is running really well with you out there.'

Doc Rivers: He wasn't worried about his individual place. He got a glimpse of how important it is for role players to accept their roles. Most stars never understand how hard that is. Shaq now does. Very impressive.

Video O'Neal's last NBA game came May 9, against James, Wade and the Heat. He didn't log a full minute on the court before having to leave, his calf again injured. Though the Celtics' doctors thought he could return next season after months of rehab, he chose to end things now rather than chance he wouldn't be able or willing to go through any more.

Danny Ainge: He worked so hard. He lost a bunch of weight and got in really good shape, and when he was on the court for us the first half of the season we were playing really, really well. And then he got hurt with the calf and he couldn't get healthy. I felt more empathy for him than unhappiness for us. When he found out he wouldn't be playing he just fell on the floor and bawled for like an hour. He was so disappointed that he wouldn't be able to help us.

His final numbers are among the best of all time: 28,596 points, fifth in NBA history; 13,099 rebounds, 12th in NBA history; 15 All-Star selections, four championships, three Finals MVP awards and one (1!) league MVP award. But he impacted the game in so many ways besides the raw numbers. Even at the end of his career, his mere presence on the floor forced defenses to game plan against him, make sure that he was always accounted for on the court.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas: We were so different. My game was more skill and shooting; his game was more power. But more than anything, we would talk about him playing against (Arvydas) Sabonis and everything else. One thing about it is, he's a student of the game. He remembers a lot. One thing that people may not know about Shaq, he has an incredible memory. You rub him the wrong way one time, whether it was 20 or 30 years ago, he will always remember that. He would sometimes point out people and say 'You see that? Fifteen years ago, he did this and this and this to me. I don't like him.' He never forgets.

Scott Skiles: The year before he got there, I think it's fair to say we were one of the worst teams in the league. Before we got him, we ran a ton of pick and rolls. We were a pick and pop team. Cat (forward Terry Catledge) could do some things in the post, but that was the era with David Robinson and Hakeem (Olajuwon), and everyone was trying to double-team from the same spot on the floor, and then fully rotate. Talk about a burden being lifted. We'd come down with Shaq and we'd get the ball to him, and it just became a matter of me, or Dennis Scott or whoever, just going to the corner and dressing up an open three. Those kinds of things, it's hard to measure how impactful they were for our team.

Phil Weber: San Antonio was my team as far as preparation goes. Before the trade, San Antonio ran about 80 post-ups (against Phoenix), because we didn't have the big fellow to guard Duncan. And once we made the trade, they ran about 80 pick and rolls. They just totally changed. They wanted him to guard pick and rolls. We didn't have that training camp to get everybody on the same page, especially if you have such a big piece that could be unbelievable. It's one thing to get everybody on the second page, and it's another thing where it's second nature, and you don't even think about it.

Danny Ainge: We were playing the Magic and we ran a play for Glen Davis to post up. I was thinking, 'Glen you better get this shot off, because Dwight (Howard) is going to come over and block this shot like he's done in the past.' He would just zone up the middle and come over and block it. And Glen caught the ball, made his spin move and put the ball in. And I'm watching Dwight the whole time and thinking 'Why aren't you coming over to block the shot?' And he would not take his body off of Shaq. It wasn't game planning; it was just respect for him and his size. He would take up so much space...even though he couldn't jump the way he once could he would just quick shoot it. He was so big that the big guys just would not take their bodies off of him.

And now...what?

David Stern: Charles (Barkley) better watch out. Because here comes Shaq.


Teams in state of flux from New York to Portland

Let's keep score.

There is avacant general manager's job in New York; a permament GM job for the taking in Portland; a vacant assistant GM job and head coaching spot available in Toronto; a head coach vacancy still not officially filled in Indiana; a head coach opening at Golden State; a head coaching job now open in Detroit; assistant coach jobs with the Lakers and Houston and Memphis and a head coach and staff in Minnesota hanging on by a thread. Is that all?

The Knicks' job is the most surprising opening, given that everyone expected Donnie Walsh to sign a two-year extension and stick around. But Walsh couldn't get the authority he wanted from owner James Dolan, and that was more important to Walsh than the pay cut Dolan asked him to take. It left his camp surprised but not shocked, as he agreed to a one-year consulting deal at Dolan's request. This came as former team president and current Florida International coach Isiah Thomas said he had no interest in returning to the job, and would the media please stop asking him if he would be interested? At the same time, Mike D'Antoni and his staff believe they're in the clear for next year, pointing out all the different roster moves and Carmelo Anthony trade and dealing talent for cap space until last summer, and the 18 games the team played in March, with next to no practice time, while still making the playoffs for the first time in seven years. But who knows? D'Antoni is supposed to meet with Dolan this week.

Walsh is believed not to be overly aggravated by the constant speculation about Thomas' interest in the gig; he was more angry with Dolan last August, when he announced Thomas was being brought back into the organization as a consultant, a job that was rescinded when the league determined he couldn't take a job with an NBA team while still the coach at FIU. Whether or not Thomas ever officially takes another job with New York, who doesn't expect him to have influence with his friend Dolan, and help out unofficially to get free agent recruits to the Knicks?

The Pistons' job opened Sunday when new owner Tom Gores officially gave the go-ahead to cashiering John Kuester, as everyone knew would happen once the team all but quit on him during the season. Kuester, a source said Sunday, was "99 percent certain" to wind up on new Laker coach Mike Brown's staff as offensive coordinator, the role he served under Brown in Cleveland before taking the Pistons job. Hornets assistant Mike Malone, who interviewed Sunday for the Warriors' head coaching job, is likely to also join Brown's staff as the defensive boss -- the same role he had with Brown in Cleveland.

Former Pistons great and current Timberwolves assistant Bill Laimbeer's name was floating around Sunday night as a potential replacement for Kuester. But Laimbeer's name has always floated around the last few years when Detroit has an opening, and Joe Dumars has always turned to someone else instead of his old teammate. Has Laimbeer gained additional standing by being on the bench of a team (Minnesota) that's gone 32-132 the last two seasons? At any rate, sources indicated Sunday night that the Pistons were in no rush to make a hire and will take their time (which bodes well for, say, Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey.)

At Golden State, ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson is in the lead, according to a league source, having interviewed twice, the second time with owner Joe Lacob. Lacob has also conducted interviews with Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and was believed to have conducted the Malone interview Sunday. Those two trail Jackson at the moment. But former Lakers assistant and Oakland native Brian Shaw and Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank, though trailing the others, are not out of the mix. Shaw has yet to get a first interview set up by Golden State. Normally that would be telling, but Shaw's camp is allowing for the possibility that the Harvard MBA educated-Lacob, a creature of venture capital and Silicon Valley, may think differently and may have a more unorthodox method to his coaching search madness than the norm.

League sources believe the Pacers' interim coach Frank Vogel will ultimately get the job on a permanent basis after leading Indiana to the playoffs and a good showing in the first round against Chicago. But he will have to change his staff, with the idea being to hire younger assistants who will reinforce the more positive message Vogel used after taking over for Jim O'Brien. There is certainly no hurry to reach a deal with anybody in Indiana, though, by owner Herb Simon, with the lockout looming.

Top O' the World, Ma!

(April 25 rankings in brackets)

1) Miami [2] (2-1): LeBron seems perfectly willing to fill in all the cracks, a la Scottie Pippen, while D Wade does his star turn a la Jordan. Worked for the Bulls six times.

2) Dallas [1] (1-2): Never a good time for an injury, but Brendan Haywood's bad hip couldn't have come at a worse time.

3) Chicago [3]: Season complete. Starting two guard Keith Bogans had arthroscopic surgery last week after playing with a bad knee for weeks, including during the run to the East finals.

4) Oklahoma City [4]: Season complete.

5) Memphis [5]: Season complete. Damon Stoudemire goes to the University of Memphis bench as an assistant, with top assistant Dave Joerger expected to join Kevin McHale's staff in Houston.

6) Boston [6]: Season complete. Celtics will be looking for size in the Draft with Shaq gone and Jermaine O'Neal coming off another knee injury. Why'd they trade Semih Erden again?

7) Atlanta [7]: Season complete.

8) L.A. Lakers [8]: Season complete. Longtime coach and executive Ettore Messina coming over from Italy, but will be more of a sounding board for Mike Brown than X-and-O assistant on the bench.

9) San Antonio [9]: Season complete. Would be interesting to see what Gregg Popovich would do if Mike Budenholzer were to leave. Wouldn't shock if P.J. Carlesimo remains on speed dial.

10) New Orleans [10]: Season complete.

11) Portland [11]: Season complete.

12) Orlando [12]: Season complete. If Dwight Howard is planning on leaving, he's sure playing the folks in Orlando for suckers. Maybe he's giving the Magic a real chance to improve the roster?

13) Philadelphia [13]: Season complete.

14) Denver [14]: Season complete.

15) New York [15]: Season complete.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Is there any chance a lockout can be averted?

At this time in collective bargaining negotiations, it's tempting to look for any signs of hope in the tea leaves of rhetoric. So when National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter said he was "hopeful" after a four-hour negotiating session between the league and union last Wednesday, some optimism broke through. After all, Hunter has been saying for months that he viewed a lockout as inevitable and has been criss-crossing the country all year telling his players to be prepared for a long work stoppage.

But there's a long, long way to go. The gulf between the two sides on the split of Basketball Related Income and whether the system itself is in need of overhaul remains yawning, even though the groups exchanged ideas on each Wednesday.

"The thing that I was impressed with was we were having constructive dialogue," said Bucks guard Keyon Doolling, a vice president of the union's executive committee. "And when you have that, you have guys trying to get to a point. You have guys trying to reach a deal. And as long as you have that dialogue, you have committed guys who want to get a deal done, you have a chance. But we're far away."

According to sources, the players have expressed a willingness to at least look at some meaningful reductions in overall salaries. But in exchange, the union wants mechanisms that would allow players to recoup some of their losses if the NBA continues on its upward track. One possible way would be to split any future monies above and beyond the current $4.3 billion in annual revenues at something approaching the current 57-43 take in the players' favor. For example, if revenues grew over the course of a new five-year CBA to, say, $5 billion, the union would get 57 percent of the new $700 million created. Such a system would incentivize both sides to grow the pot and create more cheddar for everyone. But it's not known how receptive the league was to the idea.

"It's clear that both sides were thinking about the other side's views," commissioner David Stern said Wednesday. "And we've got a few days to distill that and to see what we can do ... I would just say that it gave us some ideas. And we gave them some ideas. And it's a constant sort of push-pull, probe. And I think we now know each other, and the question is what kind of compromise is each side prepared to make. It may not be enough, on either side, but we're going to give it a shot."

Urgency finally seems to be present in both camps. Neither side is especially keen on the idea of litigating a solution in the courts, seeing how the NFL's and NFL Players Association's fortunes have bounced back and forth with subsequent judge's rulings. It doesn't mean the NBA won't lock out the players on July 1, or that the NBPA won't ultimately decide to decertify. But the deadline is very real now, and the two scheduled days of meetings beginning Tuesday in Dallas could likely provide a tipping point. If either side were to deem the second day pointless, for example, after fruitless talks on Tuesday, we'll be swinging back toward labor armageddon.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

He feels forced the use the word "forced." From Ramon Venues:

Let me preface my email by saying that I am a lifelong Heat fan. I also want to say that I don't particularly care for the way LeBron handled The Decision. To be honest, once the Heat signed [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh, LeBron could have gone to play in Japan for all I cared. As a matter of fact, if all the Heat had come out with from free agency had been re-signing Wade, I would have been happy enough. Nevertheless, the fact that things came together the way they did is a testament to the excellence of the Heat organization in hiring an executive like Pat Riley who was able to help put it all together.

LeBron James' "Decision" ultimately affected players like Deron Williams (left).
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

However, your article mentioning that what the Heat did would encourage "other stars playing alone from trying to force their way to a better situation" is simply disingenuous. Wade, Bosh, and LeBron did not "force" anything. They were free agents. If anything, your choice of words can be used to describe what Carmelo [Anthony] did, not what Wade, Bosh, and LeBron did.

I can live with the whole country cheering for the Heat to lose. And I can understand why that would be based solely on The Decision. But what happens to the discussion when the media distorts the facts in order to frame an argument?

You're being semantical, Ramon. I didn't say LeBron and Chris forced their way to Miami or in any way broke the rules; I said other players would seek to create similar kinds of three-superstar structures after seeing how successful Miami has been this season. And that's exactly what's happened. Carmelo was influenced directly by what LeBron and Chris did; he's said so. He wanted to go somewhere where he could play with other stars, and the chance to play in New York with Amar'e Stoudemire was ideal for him. Deron Williams made no secret of his frustration in Utah when the Jazz couldn't keep Carlos Boozer. He hinted that the would look strongly at free agency when his contract expired next summer. And so, the Jazz thus felt they had to move him and traded him to the Nets. The impact of what the Heat was able to accomplish is irrefutable, and other players want to affect the same kind of solution.

It's Late, Baby; it's Late. From Ahmed Awan:

I was just wondering on your thoughts on the scheduling of the NBA Finals this season. Personally, I am a little ticked that the games (especially the ones in Miami) are all scheduled for 9 p.m. tip offs. I am in high school and I think especially with our exams and other end-of-year work, its too bad that the league is playing the games so late, making it difficult for many kids in high school or younger to watch.

I completely agree, Ahmed, and it's not just because it means late nights working for me and other media. The late starts make it hard for anyone who has to get up early in the morning -- to work, to go to school -- to stay up and watch. But the game times aren't going to change, because ABC and any other network doing prime time sports events can charge the most money from advertisers from 9 to 11 p.m. In addition, West coast viewers would complain if the games started earlier, because many of them would be coming home from work or school at those times and miss part of the action. Unfortunately, I don't see this changing any time soon. Hopefully you can DVR the games and watch the ends later, though that takes away from the enjoyment of watching in real time, I'm sure.

Perhaps LB also hummed Hoff tunes to himself at the foul line. From John Looney:

The media constantly compares Dirk to Bird since they're both white and great, and they shoot mostly jumpers. However, that's strictly based on them being white. Bird was a small forward, not a 4, and a great passer.

Instead of being stuck on race, how come no one compares Dirk to another former MVP in Bob McAdoo? Great jumpshooting 4-men who can handle and rebound. Only Dirk is bigger and the better shooter.

You, too, are absolutely right, John. It is a facile and lazy comparison solely based on their race. Bird was also an underrated defender -- he wasn't a lockdown guy, but he understood spacing and anticipated so well, getting in passing lanes for deflections. McAdoo is a great comparison (one that my TNT/NBA TV colleague Greg Anthony shares, by the way). Bob was an outstanding perimeter shooter who could post but was more comfortable facing the basket. He didn't have Dirk's range, but that's the point; no big man has ever had Dirk's range. He is Sui Generis.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and Hangover II tickets (though I'm worried I'll be disappointed) to If your e-mail is especially witty, informative, thought-provoking or coffee through the nose snarky, we just may publish it!

Postseason MVP Watch

(weekly averages in parenthesis)

1) Dwyane Wade (29 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5 apg, .569 FG, .619 FT): He makes scoring against the league's best defenses look so effortless. Part of that is the attention LeBron James and Chris Bosh draw, but most of it is he's just that good.

2) Dirk Nowitzki (28.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.3 apg, .459 FG, 1,000 FT): Has there ever been a better off-balance shot maker? His body control is incredible. He has been everything an MVP should be in these playoffs for the Mavs.

3) LeBron James (20.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6 apg, .511 FG, .800 FT): One thing that has been constant about LeBron throughout his playoff career: he almost always makes the right play, as evidenced so far in The Finals. Which makes the spring of '10 in Cleveland all the more confounding.

4) Derrick Rose (season complete).

5) Kevin Durant (season complete).

By the Numbers

7 -- Number of current NBA franchises who have never been to The Finals or NBA championship series in any iteration: Charlotte, Toronto, Denver, New Orleans, Memphis, the L.A. Clippers and Minnesota. (The Atlanta franchise won the 1958 NBA championship while located in St. Louis; Oklahoma City relocated from Seattle, where the Sonics made the Finals in 1978 and won the title in 1979; the Kings were the Rochester Royals when the franchise won its only NBA championship in 1951.)

$325,000,000 -- Reported sale price of the Detroit Pistons to new ownership group led by Tom Gores.

$1,910,000 -- Option exercised last week by Lakers forward Matt Barnes, ensuring he'll play for Los Angeles next season instead of becoming an unrestricted free agent.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) For a guy that gets pilloried for his supposed lack of toughness and clutch play, Chris Bosh has hit a lot of clutch shots in the playoffs. He may not be a superstar in the commonly accepted sense, but you can't leave him single covered, either.

2) The Finals have provided terrific theatre so far. It certainly looks like two evenly matched teams through three games of the series.

Ricky Rubio (right) has a long road ahead of him before he'll be a star at the NBA level.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

3) Just a hunch, but I have a feeling Toronto might be thinking of moving from number 5 in the Draft. Could go either way, but I have a feeling it's down.

4) Happy for one of the true good guys in our profession, Brian McIntyre, who is getting the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame. It's the Hall's top award short of enshrinement, and he'll receive it next fall with the Class of 2011 HOF inductees. Brian's three decades in the NBA office, most of which were spent herding the cat-like print and broadcast media to their seats, making sure they had what they needed from the Commish, conducting media availabilities great and small and a million other things he had the decency to never mention, are a tribute to what a true professional does with a tiresome, often thankless job that has to be done exactly right every day. Couldn't happen to a better, and nicer, fellow. Cheers.

5) Welcome, Ricky Rubio. Here's hoping he knows how hard he'll have to work to become a great star over here, and that people will give him the opportunity to do that before passing judgment a month or two into his NBA career.

6) I hope someone signs Plaxico Burress once he is released from prison this week. If Michael Vick gets a second chance -- and he should have -- once he paid his debt to society, so should Burress, who didn't hurt anyone (of course, he could have, which was the point, I get it).

Not Feelin' ...

1) It's hot in Dallas. Miserable hot. Unbearable hot. Everywhere, it seems. Really, really hot. Hot.

2) It's great that The Finals started early, but that probably kept Caron Butler from being able to play in them. What will the market for him be this summer, assuming we have a market this summer?

3) RIP, NBA Triangle Offense (1991-2011). You had a great run -- well, as long as MJ and Kobe were running you.

4) Some stats are meaningful. Hank Aaron hit 755 career home runs, for example. And some stats are meaningless. When The Finals have been tied 1-1, the team that won Game 3 has gone on to win all 11 previous times. This is completely, utterly pointless. There is no common thread through those 11 Finals; it's not like the same teams played one another, year after year. And, guess what? Some year, a team that loses Game 3 after being tied 1-1 will win The Finals. And the next year, they'll say it's happened all but one time.

Tweet of the Week

i know i talk alot but since im actually shy in real life i get to hide behind my laptop yay

-- Magic guard Gilbert Arenas, on his new Twitter account (@agentzeroshow), Sunday, 7:05 p.m., after a series of Tweets over the weekend that are best described as "that's Gilbert."

Q & A: Draft prospect Kyrie Irving

The 19-year-old Irving, expected to be the first pick in the June 23 Draft, has been in Miami the past several weeks, living at his agent Jeff Wechsler's home and working out multiple times daily with longtime strength and conditioning coach Robin Pound, formerly of the Phoenix Suns (and who got Darius Miles back in shape for his short-lived comeback bid last year). Irving missed all but eight games of his freshman season with a toe injury, but returned in time to play in the NCAA Tournament, helping the Blue Devils get to the Sweet 16 before losing to Arizona and sophomore forward Derrick Williams, who is expected to go second in the Draft after Irving.

Irving is now working on getting his 10.2 percent body fat -- which was revealed in the measurements from the Chicago pre-Draft camp last month -- down. But there's nothing wrong with his shot, as he demonstrated in shooting drills with Pound at the University of Miami's practice gym the day before Game 1 of the Finals. And no one believes the Cavaliers will do anything with the first pick but take Irving, which will fulfill the dream Irving has had with his father and champion, Drederick Irving, who led Boston University to the 1988 NCAA Tournament and remains third on the school's all-time scoring list and second in field goals made and games played.

After his college career Drederick Irving played professionally in Australia, which is where Kyrie was born in 1992. Two years later, the family moved to the United States. Shortly after their arrival, Kyrie's mother, Elizabeth, died after a sudden illness, leaving Drederick to raise Kyrie and his two sisters, London and Asia. Drederick took a broker job with Cantor Fitzgerald and coached his rapidly developing son's AAU team, which was financed by Kyrie's godfather, former NBA star Rod Strickland. After starring at New Jersey high schools, Kyrie chose Duke and shot to the top of NBA future charts.

These are excerpts from an interview that will be shown on NBA TV the week before the Draft.

Me: What has this whirlwind you've been on since the tournament ended been like?

Kyrie Irving: It's been an experience. I went to the NBA Draft lottery, and that was an experience in itself. Now I'm just working hard in Miami now with Robin Pound, and just preparing for the Draft. So it's been a whirlwind.

Me: You went to Chicago, and I'm always curious to know what teams want to know about you when they talk with you.

KI: I didn't do any team interviews in Chicago. I was just with the media. And they were just asking me all sorts of questions, mainly about the No. 1 pick question.

Me: What do you think about that?

KI: It's a question that was going to happen regardless. But now they think that I'm the savior of Cleveland, which is absurd to kind of think about it right now. I'm not in Cleveland yet. And I'm not LeBron James; I'm Kyrie Irving. So wherever I'm picked I'm just going to contribute the best I can.

Me: What do you tell Cleveland fans to let them know about the person and player you are, and that you're not LeBron and shouldn't have that expectation?

KI: I gave the media this description. I'm not 6-foot-8 (he's 6-foot-3 1/2 in shoes). I have Irving on the back of my jersey when I play. And just, I'm a different player. I'm a special player. I'm just a little shorter than him. I'm just looking to contribute and come into the NBA and make an impact.

Me: You do talk with LeBron on occasion. What has he told you?

KI: Just to enjoy the process. You only get drafted once, and just get prepared as best as I can. It's a different world; it's no boys allowed. So I really have to prepare for it.

Me: How did you decide you were ready after just 11 games in college?

KI: It was the best decision for me and my family, honestly. I'm 19 years old and I just thought I was ready to make the leap. I was worried about my Draft stock during the season when I got hurt, but my father was telling me good things throughout the whole entire year which gave me the confidence to put my name into the Draft.

Me: What did Coach K say about whether you should stay or go?

KI: He wasn't swaying me one way or the other. He was just telling me to make the right decision for me and my family, which I did. Of course he wanted me to stay, and he gave me his valid reasons, but also, I gave my valid reasons why I should leave. We just came to an agreement, and he decided it was best for me to leave.

Me: When you evaluate your game now, what are you good at and what do you need to work on?

KI: Right now, just bringing it every single day, staying consistent. I think a lot of rookies struggle with that, just staying consistent over the course of an 82-game season. And that's something I'm preparing for. Going through the ups and downs of my rookie season, it's something I have to prepare for, and just being mentally tough all the time.

Me: What was the tournament like for you, and how important was that in your decision?

KI: It was a dream come true. My father really didn't want me to play in the NCAA Tournament. He was scared I was going to get hurt again. But I told him it was all going to be okay. I was really confident going into the NCAA Tournament. I really wanted to contribute and I really dreamed about being on that big a stage. That's what I came to Duke for.

Me: Obviously Arizona had a big night against Duke in the tournament, but you played well (28 points in 31 minutes). Was that the convincer?

KI: Oh, yeah, definitely. I told a lot of people that if I hadn't played those three games in the NCAA Tournament, most likely I wouldn't have come out. Those were just the confidence booster for me, to kind of silence all of the questions on whether I was healthy or not, or if I was ready for the NBA. Playing in the NCAA Tournament made my decision easier, and playing against a guy like Derrick Williams was a great experience.

Me: What were those 14 weeks like when you were hurt?

KI: They were really tough, especially in the beginning. Going through all of the x-rays, the MRIs, every single week, getting the cast changed every single week, it was definitely a test of my mental toughness and my faith. But I think God puts us in positions, and He tests us in certain ways. Now that my dream has come true, I look back on it, and it was just a learning experience. I'm never going to forget it.

Me: How long were you in the cast?

KI: For two months.

Me: That must have been an adventure, getting in and out of buildings and cars in the middle of winter in North Carolina.

KI: I didn't have a ride anywhere. I had to limp my way to class every single day.

Me: I know you admire Chris Paul's game. Any others you're looking forward to playing against?

KI: Just everybody. Being out there and just experiencing the NBA game fully, being on the court. It's kind of surreal for me, just based on thinking about the game of basketball itself. Every time I go to a game, I really simplify it completely. It's really two baskets and a leather ball there. Millions of people watch every single day. It's a dream come true for me. And being out there with great athletes like LeBron and Chris Paul and all them can be great.

Me: Are you ready to lead a team of men who are paid to play?

KI: Yes, sir, I do believe I'm ready. I wouldn't have come out if I wasn't ready.

Me: Why are you ready?

KI: This is what I've been preparing all my life for, even though it's been a short-lived life, in 19 years. But it's something I've been dreaming about, and I'm just ready to take it on.

Me: Who were some of the guys that you liked to watch when you were a kid?

KI: I only had one hero, and he's still my hero today, is my father. He was my favorite player growing up, until Chris Paul went to the NBA. He was my idol, the way he carried himself on and off the court, he was just awesome. He played in New York in different tournaments (including the Rucker League, where Drederick won MVP one summer), so I would just watch him all the time. At halftime I would shoot the ball while he was on the bench. He brought me to all his games. He just kept me around the game of basketball, which I loved.

Me: When was the first time you beat him one-on-one?

KI: When I was 16 years old, in the summertime. I beat him 15-0 twice in a row.

Me: You couldn't give pops a couple?

KI: No, I couldn't. I couldn't. Because he never took it easy on me.

Me: What was it like when you had point game and he knew and you knew that things were about to change?

KI: It was fun. Me and my father had so many battles. A couple of them, I cried after, because I came so close to beating him. but he was just bigger than me, until I started growing and filling out a little bit, he would always beat me.

They Said It

"The games are only about 40 nights a year. There's another 325 days that you have to have your presence. We have surrounded this place with our presence. We're not being shy about it."
-- New Pistons owner Tom Gores, in an interview in Sunday's Detroit Free Press, about the changes he plans to bring to the stalled franchise. That started later Sunday when Gores fired fomer coach John Kuester.

"I ain't got much vertical to get back [and] it's really not going to slow me down. [The doctors] said, 'You're the ideal candidate for this. A non-jumping, slow white guy. You shouldn't really lose much.' No explosiveness is going to be lost here."
-- Brad Miller, who acknowledged at a public event Saturday in Sacramento that he underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in May, which will keep him out at least six months.

"Basketball and German beer, you can't beat that. I was a ham and egger as a player."
-- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, on his brief professional career abroad before going into coaching.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

photoCurry's Top 10 Plays of 2015-16
Stephen Curry's Top 10 Plays of the 2015-16 Season.
photoTop 10 Plays from Each Position: 2015-16
Check out the Top 10 plays from Point Guards, Shooting Guards, Small Forwards, Power Forwards and Centers from this past season.
photoGameTime: Happy Birthday Kobe
GameTime celebrates the birthday of the 5-time NBA Champion, Kobe Bryant.
photoGameTime: LaChina Robinson
WNBA Insider LaChina Robinson joins GameTime to speak on the U.S. Women's National team capturing Gold in Rio, and the second half of the WNBA season.
photoGameTime: Looking Back At Rio
GameTime recaps Jerry Colangelo's comment on the need for international teams to step up their play on the court.

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