MIAMI — Shaquille O’Neal once brought in someone to set up a makeshift jewelry store in the Miami Heat players’ lounge, and often could be found surprising team executives and employees while naked.
Sometimes, he also played basketball.
For all those reasons, and many others, Thursday was a night to celebrate O’Neal at the arena he called home for parts of four seasons. The Heat raised O’Neal’s No. 32 to the rafters, a distinction the team has only previously awarded to Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.
“This is an inside joke for all the Miami people,” O’Neal said. “It’s definitely unexpected.”
Not from the Heat perspective, it wasn’t. Although it wasn’t a well-kept secret that O’Neal’s departure from the Heat did not come with either side particularly happy with and fond of the other — O’Neal thought he was being pranked when a team official called months ago to say this event was planned — it was always Miami’s intention to pay homage to his tenure with the franchise.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “There are a lot of them in the history of the NBA, but he’s a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition for us and meant so much to us.”
Alex Rodriguez was there sitting courtside for the big night, and so was rapper DJ Khaled. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra emerged from the locker room for the halftime ceremony, as did former O’Neal teammate Udonis Haslem. There were a slew of gifts, including a framed version of the jersey banner that was raised, and a miniature 18-wheeler — like the one he arrived on in 2004 — driven out onto the court by O’Neal’s mother, Lucille.
O’Neal thanked Haslem and Mourning, and made sure to pay tribute to the fans.
“I couldn’t done it without you,” O’Neal said. As the event was starting, Riley dumped hundreds of the “15 Strong” cards that were the signature keepsake for the 2006 Heat NBA title team over his head.
“We would not have won the championship in 2006 without the efforts of Shaquille O’Neal,” Riley said.
O’Neal had about a dozen relatives and friends with him for the halftime celebration of Miami’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, taking a break from his game-analyst duties on television for the festivities. The Heat gave commemorative T-shirts to all fans in attendance, and presented O’Neal with a $50,000 check for his foundation.
And it ended with O’Neal offering his favorite line: “Can you dig it?” he bellowed twice, as the crowd screamed.
O’Neal was a huge part of the team that delivered Miami’s first championship in 2006, even though Dwyane Wade was emerging as a superstar and longtime stars like Mourning and Gary Payton also had voices that resonated deeply within the locker room at that time.
“Contrary to what everybody thinks about his practical joking and his telling stories, he was very serious about winning,” Riley said.
Serious about having fun, too.
O’Neal once emerged from the shower and found managing general partner Micky Arison and athletic trainer Jay Sabol engaged in a conversation. So O’Neal decided to stand behind Arison, fully nude, until someone noticed. More naked O’Neal exploits included the 7-foot-1, 325-pound man’s penchant for grabbing people around the locker room and wrestling them to the ground.
“It never happened to me,” Spoelstra said. “Thank God.”
Then there was the day that Riley got a call after practice from someone inside the arena, asking about the person selling jewelry inside the players’ lounge. Riley went down and asked the portable jeweler what he was doing there, and he said O’Neal gave his approval to set up shop.
“My bad,” O’Neal said.
Eventually, O’Neal delivered the jewelry Miami wanted most — the 2006 championship ring, the one that Riley was wearing on Thursday night. And all jokes aside, O’Neal was moved by the Heat gesture.
“It is a big honor,” O’Neal said.