New leader makes Heat's job easier
by Dan LeBatard
The Miami Herald
October 7, 2004
MIAMI -- You've seen all the me-me-me that has infected sports, all the bloated ego and individualism and gotta-get-mine that tends to get in the way of smaller things, like winning.
You've seen basketball, specifically, polluted with players who have never won so much as a playoff series demanding trades from teams crippled by the millions already invested in them.
But there was Shaquille O'Neal, literally and figuratively the biggest superstar in all of sports, smiling again Monday afternoon (get used to that look from him around here) as he talked humbly about having no problem with subservience and knowing his place as an employee.
O'Neal is the most important piece in the Miami Heat's history, the center of everything, more important than even team president Pat Riley, but this is what he volunteered Monday when asked a question about his relationship with Riley:
"He's in charge," O'Neal said. "He tells me something, and I've got to get it done."
Compare that with what is happening on the splintered team he just left on the other side of the country, where an accused rapist just ran off the winningest coach in NBA history and the most dominant player in his sport after multiple championships simply because he couldn't abide anyone else being in charge.
O'Neal grew up a military child. He respects authority. Always has. Such a simple and complicated word in today's sports section -- respect. But O'Neal respects respect, which is not something you would get from everyone with his stature or resume.
So when Riley told O'Neal to get his weight down from a swollen 370 that has caused too many injuries in recent years, Shaq did not get defiant or defensive or tell the old man to get out of his face.
He did as he was told. The game's most dominant player started to sweat. And he let Riley's echoing voice push him for each of the three hours a day this offseason he would spend working out, so that what you had standing before you Monday was the leanest, meanest O'Neal we have seen in a decade.
"He can curse me out," O'Neal said of Riley, "and it won't be a problem."
Now you know why Riley interrupts a question about expectations around here being too high.
"No," Riley said. "Good. Bring it on. The last two or three years around here, the expectation our fans had is, 'How many empty seats are we going to have around here.' Counting those numbers of empty seats was no fun. We're going to be a contender. I don't want to wait another year and add this or that piece. We've got enough."
O'Neal couldn't stop smiling, couldn't stop talking about how much fun this journey was going to be and how excited he was to be a part of it. The man is so large that his smile is going to spread from his face to his teammates to everyone in the sold-out arena he is going to be playing in every night and to so much of south Florida. "Sexiest 7-footer in the NBA for 12 years running," he said with a smirk.
He is, unlike Kobe Bryant, real. Bryant has been exposed for all to see, his corporate-polished image revealed as a lie even before that police transcript came out in which he worried as much about his image and his commercials as he did about the smaller things, like his marriage. O'Neal, meanwhile, has gone more than a decade with monumental fame and nary a blemish on his public persona.
So now he changes addresses and gets to work with a guard who has Kobe's game but not his fraudulence -- humble, unselfish Dwyane Wade. And all he's going to do is help turn Wade into an All-Star for the next decade.
"I haven't been this excited in a long time," O'Neal said. "I'm going to make the game much easier for him."
He always does that for the people wearing his uniform. The easiest job in this sport is being Shaq's teammate. He did more than prop up and extend the careers of marginal players such as Rick Fox and Robert Horry and Samaki Walker in Los Angeles. He made them champions.
No team gets more open jumpers than the one O'Neal plays on, and Miami has plenty of players now who can make open jumpers. Eddie Jones, for one, just became a lot better player than he has ever been.
"I don't think they understand how easy the game is going to be," O'Neal said of his new teammates. "When I first started, I said I wanted six or seven championships. Three is not enough."
An angry, motivated, hungry, coachable, lean Shaquille O'Neal?
May God have mercy on the rest of basketball.