Shaquille O'Neal Enjoying Sideman Status in Cleveland with MVP LeBron James

Shaquille O'Neal Enjoying Sideman Status in Cleveland with MVP LeBron James

Published February 16, 2010

Nowadays, this is how Shaq rolls.

Cramming his 7-foot-1, 325-plus pounds into a four-wheeled office chair straining at its screws, Shaquille O'Neal raises those size 23 sneakers and slides across the Cavaliers practice court in Independence, Ohio, like a kid sledding down a snowy hill.

Nobody's in his path - not yet.

The Big Diesel, though, is searching to destroy. Gliding across the hardwood, he spots some targets: a group of reporters, looking like human bowling pins.

O'Neal pretends he can't stop, but before contact and untold injuries, he pushes off in the opposite direction and crashes into a wall, spilling slowly from his seat.

Everyone cracks up. O'Neal's fine. The wall holds up, too.

It's a classic Shaq moment: O'Neal is 37 - going on 13.

Weeks shy of another birthday, the center of this NBA generation and four-time champion is having a blast in his first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"This is the funnest, funniest team I've ever been on in my life," Shaq said, keeping one eye on a few teammates holding a post-practice dunk contest. "This is a close-knit group."

Shaq Daddy is helping them bond.

Pried away in a trade with Phoenix last June to aid LeBron James' drive for a first championship, O'Neal has helped the Cavs move atop the league's standings and positioned them to end the city's 46-year drought without a major sports title.

The preseason speculation that this arranged marriage with James might not work was off base. O'Neal and James are happy together, two icons sharing the spotlight without an outward trace of jealousy.

As long as the Cavs are winning, there won't be any trouble.

"It's his show and I'm just trying to make him look good," O'Neal said. "If we were the same age there might be a little tension, but I'm on my way out."

O'Neal has settled into Cleveland. Instead of living downtown, where the nightlife - while clearly not at the level of Los Angeles or Miami - could be a distraction, he opted for a place in rural Richfield, not far from where the Cavaliers played from 1970 through the mid-1990s.

The father of three boys, each of whom claims James as their favorite player, O'Neal is at a different place in his celebrated life. His wife, Shaunie, filed for divorce in November and O'Neal has taken on a lower profile in Cleveland.

He didn't host a Super Bowl party.

"Don't even have a TV," he said in his familiar baritone.

Still a player. But now a role player.

One of the game's all-time greats, O'Neal is content to be a sideman in Cleveland, splitting time with Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He wasn't always so willing to play second fiddle while alongside Lakers' star Kobe Bryant or the Heat's Dwyane Wade. But O'Neal understands that James is Cleveland's unchallenged megastar.

From the time he arrived, O'Neal made it known he is here to support James. Before a recent game, O'Neal was chatting with James in Cleveland's locker room when he dropped to a knee in a playful show of respect to the league MVP.

"I am here to serve your every need, King James," O'Neal said.

It's easy for him.

"I'm a realist," O'Neal said. "I like to put it in business terms. I ran three different corporations my way and I was successful. But I'm an older guy who is on his way out so they brought me in as a consultant for the new, up-and-coming CEO. I'm here for him."

After a slow start, which led to rumblings that his career might be over, O'Neal has found his groove with the Cavs. The club needed him to step up his game after injuries sidelined guards Mo Williams and Delonte West and he has - as Cleveland has adjusted its offense for its new starting center.

They are pounding the ball inside to O'Neal, and though he didn't play in Dallas on Sunday, the 15-time All-Star is playing like one again.

"He's motivated," James said. "When Mo and Delonte went down he decided to step his game up, which we knew he could do. He's just playing with a little bounce in his step that he didn't have at the start. But he had a different mindset than we all thought. We all thought he was playing slow. He was just saving himself for the second half of the season.

"He tricked all of us."

In November and December, O'Neal looked tired. His shot was flat.

But since a Jan. 4 loss at Utah, O'Neal has averaged 16 points and six rebounds for the Cavs.

It's taken time. O'Neal says that was his plan.

"I came here with the perfect chemist's perception," he said after practice recently. "The formula they had was perfect and any added ingredient could make it go bad or worse. The first games I was just doing what I was told, waiting and seeing, just sitting back.

"Now, we got a couple guys out and I'm getting some more touches. At the end of my career, if I don't put up big numbers, people are going to say, 'Shaq has nothing left.' I'm used to taking 25 to 30 shots a game but that's not the case here and I accept that.

"When I get more touches, I'm the most consistent big man to ever play the game."

O'Neal is loving Cleveland and all it's sleet, snow and rain. And the city is loving Shaq back.

An O'Neal bobblehead giveaway at a minor league hockey game drew a crowd of more than 18,000 to Quicken Loans Arena. His bigger-than-life personality has easily blended in among the Cavaliers, a collection of guys who genuinely enjoy each other's company. It's common for players to hang around for hours after practice.

"Everybody is close," O'Neal said. "It's the first team I've seen where nine or 10 guys go to dinner on every road trip. I've played on teams where this guy hung with this guy. LeBron gets everybody together and sends every one a little bbm (Blackberry message): 'Dinner at Mortons, be there at eight.'"

Cavs coach Mike Brown raves about O'Neal. The 17-year veteran has been a willing listener and sounding board. He hasn't complained about a reduction in minutes and responds to Cleveland's coaches by saying, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."

"He's been terrific," Brown said. "He makes great suggestions. He talks to the young guys. He's great for this group. The first words out of his mouth when he came here were, 'This is LeBron's team and I'm here to help him get an NBA ring.' For him to set the tone that way was remarkable."

Brown points at three lonely banners hanging on a wall high above the Cavs' practice court. Two represent division titles, the other is for the Cavs' lone conference crown in 2007.

"He understands what it's all about, and that's what makes it special," Brown said. "Shaq has fit right in. Although he's taking up a lot of space, he's fit right in."

Written by <P>By TOM WITHERS , AP Sports Writer</P>


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