By Dylan Barmmer
It was quite the arrival.
There were the 3,000 or so screaming fans. The fleet of television trucks. The swarm of news helicopters overhead. The giant key to the City of Miami awaiting at the end of the red carpet. The three-story banner hanging from his new home. The police escort of the massive 18-wheeler that carried him into the chaos.
It was so much, you’d have a hard time believing it if you heard about it. Or if you couldn’t turn on the TV and see it unfold on one of eight different channels.
It all would have been too much, really – if it had been for anyone else.
But this was different. This was, well, huge.
This was Shaquille O’Neal.
And this was his introduction to Miami.
Welcome to the Love, Shaq.
The Miami HEAT threw a block party Tuesday afternoon to welcome the arrival of easily the biggest star in franchise history, and the towering, imposing, grinning giant at the heart of the celebration did what he seemingly always does.
He seized the moment. And he dominated.
Upon emerging from the semi emblazoned with the words “Diesel Power” and his world-famous face, the 11-time NBA All-Star took all that love and tossed it right back at South Florida. He playfully doused fans with a plastic water cannon. He “modeled” an honorary guayabara. He guaranteed the HEAT would win its first-ever NBA title.
And that was just the first 10 minutes of the show.
O’Neal’s outsized personality transcends basketball, spilling out into movies, music, commercials, community work and comedy.
Yes, comedy. And we’re not talking about “Kazaam.”
HEAT President Pat Riley said that he felt “absolutely blessed,” hailing the three-time NBA Champion as “the most talented, dominant player in the NBA.”
But when O’Neal strode to the podium on the floor of AmericanAirlines Arena, he proved that he might also be so much more.
The most engaging player. The most self-assured player. And, without a doubt, the funniest player.
The routine began with an impersonation of HEAT coach Stan Van Gundy’s frantic sideline demeanor, and ended with a huge media contingent wondering what had just hit them.
They knew they were meeting The Diesel. The Big Daddy. The Most Dominant Ever. The Big Aristotle.
But The Big Nudist?
“I just bought a house on the beach, and my wife likes me to walk naked on the beach,” O’Neal said. “I’m going to be in very, very top physical shape.”
He certainly looked fitter and leaner than the man who led the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA titles in the past five seasons, and he claimed his weight is down to 340 pounds and his body fat reduced to 15 percent.
But, more importantly, he looked and sounded like something else.
The Diesel appeared fueled. And ready to drive the HEAT to places they have never been before.
“I’m not angry,” said O’Neal, whose bitter breakup with the Lakers has been thoroughly documented, dissected and discussed since L.A.’s five-game Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in June. “I’m very motivated. When I met with Pat Riley, he wanted me to come down here and do one thing, and that’s take care of business. I assured him that I will do that. People that know me know what time it is and they know what the Diesel is coming to do. Period.
“I’m coming back mean as ever and I’m coming back determined as ever.”
The Big Trade Target said he had “a lot of options,” but in the end, he chose Miami. And, he insists, it wasn’t because of the beaches.
“Miami was one of my choices for one reason and one reason only,” said O’Neal. “They didn’t have a lot of talent on that team, but they had a great team. I saw that they played good together. I saw that the guys got along together. I saw that they were a great team and I just wanted to be a part of a team. Because I know in basketball you can’t do it by yourself, no matter how great you are.”
O’Neal is definitely great. In 12 seasons, he has averaged 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.6 blocks per game. He has won three NBA Finals MVPs. He has made the All-Star team in all but one season. He has been named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. He was won an Olympic Gold Medal and a World Championship.
So the HEAT becomes, without question, his team. Or does it?
“I’m glad to be here and I know you guys are probably going to start talking about whose team it is,” said O’Neal. “I’m letting you know now it’s Dwyane Wade’s team. He’s that type of guard who can lead us and do great things. I’m just his big brother and I’m just here to back him up.”
The pairing of O’Neal and dynamic second-year guard Wade has NBA executives, players and observers anticipating great things for the HEAT, who have not had a devastating inside-outside attack since the days of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.
But when O’Neal lavished high praise on his new teammate, it meant so much more. It meant that anything is possible with the new-look HEAT.
“Dwyane Wade showed me some things [last year],” said O’Neal. “This team showed me some things. I just think we’re one or two pieces away. We got a big piece here now.”
That piece is certainly big, but many have said it might have become too big. And too old. Questions about O’Neal’s conditioning and arthritic big toe have only been rivaled by those about his age, but both O’Neal himself and team executives insist that the 32-year-old Diesel still has major mileage left.
“As I got older, I got better,” said O’Neal. “I came in at 285 with one or two percent body fat and I always got tired out. The older I got, I obtained more knowledge. I’ve just gotten better. Yes, I’m 32, I’m getting old, but I still got five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 more years left.”
“This guy has been a pretty durable guy,” said Van Gundy. “He gets up and down the floor. He plays big minutes. I mean, this isn’t a guy who is limited to 30, 32 minutes a game. He’ll play, when he has to, 40, 42 minutes a game. Where is the conditioning problem?”
“He had one of the best physicals that any player that we’ve traded for has ever had,” said Riley. “He’s had, obviously, some injuries. But he came back with as clean a bill of health as you can. He wants to play a lot longer. And I know that he knows that he has to take care of himself. We will leave that alone.”
O’Neal doesn’t like to be alone in anything, and in his role as The Big Recruiter, he will need to do everything in his power to lure additional talent to the HEAT. The franchise gained a major piece to its puzzle in acquiring O’Neal, but it had to give up three starters and a future first-round draft pick to do so.
Not to worry, says O’Neal.
“I’ve spoken to Coach Riley and Coach Van Gundy and they’ve already done a beautiful job of recruiting,” he said. “Whatever help they need from me to bring some more pieces here, they can get that.”
No matter what those pieces turn out to be, one thing is for sure:
The HEAT has never burned brighter.
“Here, he can start something fresh himself,” said Riley. “He knows how genuine we are. He’s seeing it – this display of enthusiasm on the part of the media and the fans and an organization that wants to embrace him. So I think he’s going to embrace this city. And I think he’s looking forward to that.”
“When I was rolling up, I was telling my wife that I felt like the president,” said O’Neal. “It was great. I really didn’t expect any of this. It’s going to be a great time here.”