Dealing With Changed Men

By Mike Wise
Monday, June 5, 2006

I'm one of those pompom wavers who keeps gushing about the transcendent year of change in the NBA, how new rules and fresh coaching perspectives gave us fuel-injected Phoenix and now a cachet finals between Miami and Dallas. I keep going on about how the league took back its game from the ruffians and restored it to the playmakers.

It's all true. But I forgot to mention how the ruffians changed.

For instance, Shaquille O'Neal told me six summers ago he would never play for Pat Riley.

"All those suicide drills, where you run and run," O'Neal began, "it just takes too much out of you."

He kept sniping at the coach infamous for practicing his players for five hours or until they keeled over -- or both.

"Look at his Knicks and Heat teams and see how fresh they were at the end of the regular season," Shaq said at the time. "I'm not saying the man is not one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game. I'm just saying as a hard-working NBA player I don't know how much my body can take."

The night after Detroit was dumped in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, after O'Neal and Riley combined to take their third different team to an NBA finals, Shaq called Riley "the perfect coach for me now."

"He's simmered down," he said in a telephone interview from his Miami home Saturday night. "He's not like he used to be. One-hour practices. Coming in at 12 some days. Days off. Pat knows our bodies."

At Riley's request, O'Neal lost bulk and body fat.

"You could say we both changed," Shaq said. "Actually, you could say that with all of us."

Gary Payton was once as disagreeable a soul as there ever was in the NBA. If Payton wasn't a coach-killer, he made it hard on anyone who ever told him how to play basketball. Now he's 37, a 16-year veteran. Like O'Neal, 34, Payton is more worried about his legacy than silly spats over playing time and shots.

This is what happens when the anger-management guard, the big, distracted kid who likes to eat and the great dictator all make adjustments. You get a different team and a different league.

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