Back in July, Shaquille O'Neal arrived at American Airlines Arena in an 18-wheeler bearing his image, commencing a day of festivities usually reserved for NBA titles. At the top of the arena steps, upon which a red carpet had been unrolled, O'Neal shook hands with a pair of giddy mayors and received keys to the city and county. The day was dubbed "Shaq Day."
By comparison, Monday afternoon was understated. A slimmed-down O'Neal donned his new black-and-orange Miami Heat uniform and promised to be a leader on a unified Heat team during the organization's designated media day, hours before he and the rest of the players assembled with team President Pat Riley and Coach Stan Van Gundy for the first team meeting of the season.
Making only veiled references to his running feud with Kobe Bryant and the dissension that contributed to his July 14 trade from the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal presented himself as part jokester and part gentleman, a sometimes misunderstood player who dropped about 20 pounds in three months to show he is determined to be a leader and dependable teammate with his third NBA team in his 13th season.
"I've learned a lot from my first two organizations and I look to put it all together and do something memorable here," O'Neal, 32, said. ". . . I'm very excited. I haven't been this excited in a long time."
O'Neal said he wasn't bitter about his departure from Los Angeles and backed away from questions about Bryant, while continually making references to the importance of camaraderie and team play during a jammed news conference down the hall from the Heat offices.
At 7 feet 1, O'Neal makes Miami an immediate title contender and vastly different from the small, athletic, overachieving squad that banded together to go 42-40 last season and make it to the second round of the playoffs. Van Gundy remarked that Miami's players, who last season passed to the post perhaps five or six times a game, would be trying to "post up five or six times a possession" this season, taking advantage of "the most unique guy in the NBA."
"The main ingredient is sticking together," O'Neal said. "Talent can only win maybe 40 or 50 games in this league. . . . Everybody has to be willing to sacrifice. I see that from this group. . . . I've been here a month and had discussions with all the key people. We're all on the same page."
O'Neal said he awakened to a difference in attitude in Miami when, during a voluntary workout last month, Miami guard Dwyane Wade hit him in the face with a pass.
Wade, a contender for rookie of the year honors last season, said, " 'You've got to catch it,' " O'Neal recalled. "I said, 'I'm not used to getting those passes, buddy.' "
O'Neal was asked about Bryant's assertion to police officers investigating a charge of rape against him that O'Neal paid off women not to take action against him. The criminal case against Bryant was dropped and O'Neal treated the assertion, which recently was made public, lightly.
"It's actually kind of funny to me," O'Neal said. "I'm down on the beach butt-naked trying to lay out and my name comes up. . . . If you sit back and look at everything that's been going on, and everything that's been said, it's kind of funny."
Funny might have been the operative word Monday. O'Neal, who said he left the Lakers on great terms with former coach Phil Jackson, said he wasn't "leaving [L.A.] with a bad taste in my mouth because I brush my teeth every morning." He described himself as "the biggest, sexiest guy in every town I go to" and the league's sexiest seven-footer for 12 years running, not to mention the "NBA's best NFL player."
O'Neal said he made critical comments about former Lakers teammate Eddie Jones -- now a teammate with the Heat -- in the past to motivate Jones, but, "I probably won't use that method [again]. Obviously, that didn't work."
Jones insisted that he was thrilled to be reunited with O'Neal, with whom he played from 1996 to '99, saying they had put their problems in the past.
"I like the fact he's here and been doing all the things we do," Jones said. "He's participated in everything, and I love that. I think he's motivated. For a guy to drop all that weight over the summer, you've got to be motivated. . . . He's more mature, honestly."
O'Neal said he dropped the 20 pounds at Riley's behest and hoped to lop off another five or 10 during training camp. He said he achieved the weight goal by giving up weight training, instead doing cardiovascular workouts for three hours twice daily.
He also said he honored Riley and Van Gundy's request that he purchase a home in Miami -- the Miami Herald reported that he offered between $19 million and $20 million for a 19,000-square foot home with eight-foot doorways on the exclusive Star Island, down the block from Rosie O'Donnell, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Gloria and Emilio Estefan -- by Sept. 1 so he could settle in and begin working out early.
O'Neal will be a leader by necessity, and he will also bring a buzz to the franchise that has been lacking since the mid-1990s, when Riley took over as coach and almost immediately traded for Alonzo Mourning, now with the New Jersey Nets.
Wade, the team's only other marquee player and a member of the 2004 Olympic team, still lacks wide name recognition. After giving up Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant to get O'Neal, the Heat spent pennies to bring in some players who could hit the outside shot, adding shooting guard Wesley Person, guard Damon Jones, forward Christian Laettner and center Michael Doleac.
O' Neal said he wasn't looking for individual recognition this season. He said he told Riley -- with whom he also has had some public disputes in the past -- to feel free to call him up anytime and yell at him if necessary.
"He's in charge," O'Neal said. "He tells me something and I've got to get it done. . . . The relationship is not there yet, but the respect factor is there."