Here's my motivational slogan for next season," said Shaquille O'Neal last Saturday by phone from his home in Orlando. "A ring for the King. He wants one, and I want another one. A ring for the King, baby!"
O'Neal sounded rejuvenated as he prepared for the newest role of a celebrated 17-year career. Having won three rings as a Laker with Kobe Bryant and a fourth with Dwyane Wade in Miami, Shaq is making another stop in his Forrest Gump--like run through the NBA: He is moving to Cleveland to assist the King, LeBron James, in pursuit of his first crown.
"Everybody is going to say, Whose team is it?" said O'Neal, two days after the Cavaliers acquired him from the Suns for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a second-round pick and $500,000. "It's his team. I want you to print that in double-black-bold print: It's his team. He's the King, and the Cavs have hired a known hit-man bodyguard. My job is to protect him. The team is his team, he's the s—, and I'm his backup."
O'Neal first glimpsed the glorious possibilities in LeBron seven years ago, when during a Lakers road trip he attended a game at St. Vincent--St. Mary High in Akron. "Oh, yeah, I knew," he said of James's potential. "I was very surprised [that] at a young age he had the all-around game because usually with young players they do one thing that's great. But he had it all already—he was a great passer looking for his teammates, a great leaper, a great personality. The thing I respect about LeBron is he's very humble: He works for his name, and he has a strategy to be the King. He's a hard worker who works for what he gets."
But is James a better player than Shaq's former running mate—and antagonist—Bryant? "There's no doubt LeBron, Kobe and D-Wade are the best players in the game now," O'Neal said. "Kobe said it the best when he said it's hard to pick out one guy. Call it a three-way tie."
How did Shaq feel watching Bryant finally prove he could win a title without him? "I was happy for him because he actually played excellent team ball. He led his team, and he played great," said O'Neal. "He really didn't have anything to prove. He's already made his name and mark in the game. Now he's doing what I'm doing—he's adding extra pages. If Kobe's career was closed, he'd still be in the history books, with the second-most points in one game with 81 [against the Raptors in January 2006] and all his championships. Kobe is the alpha male like I'm the alpha male; we both want to win all the time and rack up as many [titles] as possible. But that's O.K.: When people say stuff like that, it adds extra excitement to the Shaq-Kobe dilemma."
That includes the new hot topic of NBA conversations: whether Bryant, 30, or O'Neal, 37, will retire with the most jewelry. Already, there is Hollywood-scale hype in anticipation of each going for his fifth ring in a Lakers-Cavaliers Finals next June. "That would be the most-watched Finals in history; I know it would," said Shaq. "It would be good for the game."
O'Neal insisted—knowing few will believe him—that he is not competing with Bryant. "When I'm done playing, I'm not going to say [Kobe] got four or he got five," he said. "I'm not into that. I'm blessed, and I know for a fact if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have my four. I was blessed to play with a guy like him, and he was blessed to play with a guy like me."
Shaq went on to list, shot by shot, the big postseason plays made by Bryant and other former teammates, like Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Wade, that enabled O'Neal to win and win and win. "I can say with confidence, I probably could have got one [title] by myself," he said. "I always tell people, I got four, but three of them, if it wasn't for a couple teammates, I probably wouldn't have. I know I'm lucky, very lucky. But as you look at the history of the game, every superstar can say that."
The Cavaliers hope LeBron will soon be able to say that as well. They acquired O'Neal in no small part to thwart Magic center Dwight Howard, who pounded Cleveland for 40 points in Orlando's decisive Game 6 win in the Eastern Conference finals. Not everyone views the Cavs' Shaquisition as a difference maker—"He is such a defensive liability in the pick-and-roll," says an Eastern executive. "Howard beats you with quickness and activity, and Shaq doesn't have that anymore"—but O'Neal is firmly selling his value. He played 75 games last season (his most in nine years), averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds, and led the NBA in field goal shooting for the 10th time, with 60.9%. "We won't have to double-team Dwight Howard," Shaq said, "but other teams are still going to have to double [us]."
As much as anyone, O'Neal understands that LeBron's fame will soon ring hollow if he doesn't earn a championship. In the early years of his career with the Magic, before joining Bryant in Los Angeles and eventually winning his first title in 2000, Shaq had been dismissed as a one-dimensional dunker, all the while making movies and rap records and becoming a pop icon. In those days he was in the same celebrity circle as Michael Jackson, whose death last week weighed heavily on O'Neal.
"I had a lot of history with him," Shaq said. "Fifteen years I knew him. He used to stay in my house when he would come to Orlando, and nobody was there. We used to go to the Neverland ranch; my kids would go up there. His house was a real damn beauty—this guy had lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, cougars. When you went there, it was like you'd get to go to a carnival. He'd invite us to go and watch movies in the theater in his house. He was real generous with me, a really nice guy."
The talk back turned to O'Neal's new friend. Shaq accepts that he'll most likely serve as James's sidekick for one season only, that next summer the Cavs will exploit the cap space created by his expiring $21 million salary to recruit a free agent such as Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh. "I don't think I'm going to buy a house in Cleveland," O'Neal said. "The economy is down. I already got a big mansion in Orlando, and I had my mansion in Miami that I just sold. So I'll probably just rent a condo or apartment."
Imagine waking up one morning in suburban Cleveland to find Shaq moving into the three-bedroom unit next door. Enjoy the year, Cavs fans: You're surely in for a wild ride.
Of the inevitable expectations this team will have to contend with, Shaq says, "LeBron is such a great player that he's always had a bull's-eye on his back, and now, with the addition of me, it's going to be even bigger. I wouldn't call it pressure, but guys are going to be coming for us. But that's O.K. because I'm coming too."