Over one tumultuous, pack-up-and-leave summer, Shaquille O'Neal stunningly switched teams, coasts and, gradually, pants size. The NBA's most indomitable force of the past decade -- all 7 feet 1, 325 pounds of him -- sat down for an extended interview last week and spoke of those changes with The Post's Mike Wise and Michael Wilbon.
From Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade, from Phil Jackson to Pat Riley, O'Neal talked bluntly about his Los Angeles Lakers' past, his future with the Miami Heat, his girth and the enduring basketball legacy he hopes to leave.
Your weight became a daily drama in Los Angeles. Why did you wait until now to drop 30-40 pounds?
"I know people don't believe this, but weight has never been a problem. What you've got to understand is, when I got to L.A., they started tackling me and fighting me. So I got with [renowned Thai-Bo trainer] Billy Blanks and we lifted weights, because I wanted to get big and strong. I've always had 14- to 15-percent body fat, even when I had toe surgery and I came back at 365.
"So that's all I did was lift and get big. Instead of somebody being a man and coming to me and saying, 'We want you to lose weight,' no one ever did that. Phil [Jackson] told me to get big, get strong."
Did you feel you were too heavy?
"Look, 355-365 is probably a number too big and too heavy to play basketball, I admit that. So when I met with Pat [Riley], I asked him a question: 'What do you want me to weigh when I come in?'
" 'How much do you weigh now?' he said.
"I said, '358, 357.' He said, 'I want you to be a young Shaq at 325.' And I told him, 'Okay.'
"I've always been the type of player when the coach tells me do something, I do it. I may argue and fight and tussle with you, but I do it. I got it done."
Even for someone over 300 pounds, isn't 40 pounds a lot to drop in one summer?
"Muscle weighs more than fat, so it wasn't tough at all. I didn't touch a weight. I did the treadmill for an hour and a half, twice a day. I woke up at 8, worked out from 9:30 to 12, came back and did the daddy and the husband thing. I put the kids to bed about 10 o'clock and went back out about 11 and did the same thing. Two-a-days, every day."
What really went wrong with the Lakers?
"The Lakers were like, 'You get Gary [Payton] and Karl [Malone], we'll give you everything you want.' I got Gary and Karl to take less money. When [the contract extension] didn't happen for a couple of months, I knew it wasn't coming. I'm not new to this game. I'd been through it before in Orlando. After the season, I go downstairs to get some cereal with the kids. It's like 8 a.m. and the chef wasn't up yet. I'm watching TV and see this report that Phil is out.
"I'm thinking, 'I'm the Diesel, I'm the done dollar and it didn't go down?' For that man to take us to four Finals in five years with all the crap he had to put up with, that's just showing he knows what the hell he is doing. Getting rid of him did not make sense. It didn't make sense.
"I met with Phil four or five days after he got out. We met at a hotel and I told him, 'I love you, I respect you and I miss you.' And he told me, 'I know you got a hard decision. Good luck.' "
Would you have stayed with the Lakers if Phil Jackson was still the coach?
"Phil was the one who took me to the next level, so I'm loyal to him. I didn't want to play for another coach there. That's like me training with a ninja all my life and then going down to a local karate instructor. It just don't make sense. Instead of doing that at the same place, I'd rather go somewhere else and start all over.
"I knew things were going to be different. But they did it in a disrespectful manner."
How did it all go down?
"I know it wasn't personal. It was just business. Because [Lakers owner Jerry Buss] knows when it comes to negotiations, I'm not backing down. I can't back down. They know when it came to talks, I wanted to get what I was supposed to get. Just because Mr. [Kevin] Garnett didn't max out his contract doesn't mean I'm taking less money. I'm not going down. If you don't pay me what I want, let's talk business and meet in the middle. All this could have been resolved for between $2 [and] $4 million. That didn't happen.
"Look, some people don't care. And you can tell they don't care. I'm the type that when I got it going, I want to keep it going forever. If that don't work and we get beat and we have to add new pieces, that's all right. I want to keep going, not, 'Let's start all over.' Start all over? We may not ever get there again."
Do you harbor a grudge against the Lakers?
"I don't hold anything against the organization. For what? Life ain't that serious and business ain't that serious. I've seen it done before. Now if I was the first player in history that this was done to, I would be sick. The sickest day of my NBA life was when the Knicks traded [Patrick] Ewing. If it can happen to him, if it can happen to Dominique [Wilkins]. . . . If the Bulls let Mike [Jordan] go, it can happen to anybody."
"Looking back, it actually worked out for me -- in real life and fairy-tale life. I like the weather, I want to live on the ocean. Miami is perfect. I wasn't going to go just anywhere. I wanted to go play in Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki or Miami. [Lakers General Manager] Mitch Kupchak knew he would have been stupid to trade me to a team in the same conference, so . . . Miami."
Dwyane Wade is your latest impossibly talented teammate. How is he different from Penny Hardaway in Orlando or Kobe in L.A.?
"I like that kid. I like him a lot. Because he's humble, he's different and he's earning his stripes. Last year, I never heard of the cat. I knew everybody was talking about him, but I didn't know who he was. Next thing, I'm flipping through the channels, and 'Damn, this kid can play.'
"And he listens. I'm going to tell him all the little secrets, all the little dos and don'ts, all the little good and bad, and I'm going to give him all that knowledge. Because he has the opportunity to be labeled one of the best guards. That's going to be my gift to him. I'm a humble guy. I made it. I don't have to come down here and keep establishing myself. It's time to get him going. So if he's going and I'm going, we're going to be straight. My job is boost him up and keep him boosted up. And the mistakes I made and learned from with my first two disciples, I won't make with him."
Mistakes? For instance . . . ?
"I don't think I got to know them dudes. I don't think I knew how delicate they were. For some people, you raise your voice at them, they're gone. That's it. I'll never raise my voice at this kid. I plan to use that Phil psychology. I'll be yelling at him but not raising my voice. The other two, I raised my voice and they took it the wrong way. I'm not going to do that anymore."
Why don't a lot of young NBA players get it?
"The problem with all these young prima donnas now, what you've got to understand is, none of them have ever been yelled at in elementary, high school or college. So you can't talk to them now. And that's what's wrong with a lot of them. They're spoiled brats. I think me, Garnett and [Tim] Duncan are the last of the How-It's-Supposed-To-Be-Doners. You know, the respect for the game. Team play. All that.
"A lot of cats now come in and take 30 crazy shots and they hit one great shot and it's, 'Oh my God, he's the greatest player.' "
Among other slights last season, Kobe called you "fat" and "childish." Why didn't you approach him the first part of last season?
"Because I'm corporate. I could always get into that 'Brother, Hip-Hop, I-Got-To-Mess-Him-Up' stuff. But for what? I've got five kids. I've got seven major companies endorsing me. I just wouldn't handle it like that. The difference between a man and a mouse is, he never said that stuff to me. Never ever. Never in front of me or never to me. If he would have said that to me, it would have never got out. What would have got out is, I would have had to get into that Hip-Hop, Beat-a-Chump-Up stuff. Because I probably would have done something about it. Behind closed doors."
Some people might say you showed more restraint after Kobe was arrested and reportedly told a law enforcement officer that you paid up to $1 million to silence women you had sex with. You denied this vehemently. But even after the FBI questioned you about the matter, you never went public with it or confronted Kobe in public. Why?
"The day he did it, I knew about it. But you know what? I knew what type of cat he was. And that should tell what type of cat I was. Because it never got out that I knew about it.
"We never hung out. We never talked on the phone. We never did anything together. So how could he say something like that? That's why I say he's a clown, because he is a clown. I thought the cat was in his room studying, playing games. That's what an image will do for you. You create something to say, 'I'm great, I'm great,' and then when that light hits your [butt]. . . . "