Shaquille O’Neal had a penchant for doing funny things in the nude when he was with the Miami Heat.
“You’ve probably heard all of them,” current Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, an assistant on the Heat’s 2006 championship team, said when asked to share some of his favorite Shaq stories on Wednesday morning. “But he would run around naked grabbing staff members, tackling them to the floor. And there was nothing you could do if you got wrapped up by him. Thankfully, it never happened to me.”
One time, Pat Riley said, O’Neal got out of the shower after a practice and walked right up behind owner Micky Arison, who was facing the other direction, talking to trainer Jay Sabol. O’Neal stood there as players and coaches laughed.
“He didn’t do anything,” Riley said of O’Neal, one of the league’s all-time best pranksters. “But he was always trying to get your attention, trying to keep the environment light. He’s just a funny man. He just is.”
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On Thursday night, the 7-foot, 300-pound-plus giant who used to run around AmericanAirlines Arena naked for 3 1/2 years — and who lifted the franchise to its first championship — became only the third player in team history to have his jersey retired.
The Heat honored O’Neal at halftime of Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team he won his first three championships with and who traded him to the Heat in July 2004 for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom and a pair of draft picks.
The Heat brought out Shaq’s No. 32 jersey — fittingly — in a mini-diesel 18-wheeler. His mother, Lucille, was behind the wheel.
“Coach Riley, I couldn’t have done it without you — you pushed us and you pushed us and you pushed,” O’Neal said during a 17-minute ceremony in which he took time to introduce fellow Hall of Fame center Alonzo Mourning and team captain Udonis Haslem to the crowd, two teammates on the Heat’s first title team.
“Pat, a lot of people think we have problems,” O’Neal continued. “We don’t have problems. I love you. I respect you. I respect this organization. The day you decided to take over [as coach], I knew we were going to win. This man will do anything for this organization.”
O’Neal’s departure from the Heat didn’t come on good terms. He and Riley exchanged plenty of verbal shots before and after Riley traded to him to Phoenix in February 2008 for Marcus Banks and Shawn Marion. O’Neal, 44, admitted he wasn’t expecting to be honored like this by the Heat when the team reached out to him last year.
Before the game, though, Riley, 71, said the team began thinking about retiring O’Neal’s jersey almost immediately once he was traded away.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Riley, who shared a few funny stories of O’Neal’s time with the Heat, including the time he walked into the Heat locker room to find a man Shaq had invited to the facility selling big gold chains to players who had just wrapped up practice.
“There a lot of them in the history of the NBA,” Riley continued. “But he was a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition for us. It meant so much to us.”
It meant more, Riley said, than even the acquisition of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who won two more titles after O’Neal. Because it was O’Neal, Riley said, who elevated the Heat to a championship level.
“And it was a great 3 1/2 years in spite of all the other stories of how it ended,” Riley said.
O’Neal left an indelible mark on and off the court with the Heat. He not only played mentor to Wade and Haslem, young players on the Heat’s 2006 title team, but he and Mourning guided what O’Neal termed “a group of misfits” toward one common goal.
“We had a bunch of guys that were each respectively the man on their team once in their career,” O’Neal said of the Heat’s 2006 team, which featured former All-Stars Gary Payton and Antoine Walker, among others.
“Myself and Pat and D-Wade, we had to just keep everybody together. The best thing Pat did was have practice at 12 o’clock — because those guys would just go out every night to the beach. You know Pat with his 10 o’clock practices. I had a conversation with Pat. I said, ‘Pat, can you please move it to 12?’ That way if you go out and come in at 4 [in the morning] you’ve still got six, seven hours of sleep. So, he did that. And that was the first step. But, we just stuck together.”
O’Neal, who showed up at AmericanAirlines Arena in an 18-wheeler the day the Heat acquired him with a giant squirt gun and promised the 4,000 fans who met him outside the arena the team would win a championship before he left, called the title he won with the Heat his “second favorite” among his four.
“The first one was the first one Kobe and myself got,” he said. “That was special. But this one was special because everybody thought we couldn’t do it. Second of all, I didn’t have a Shaq-like Finals. D-Wade stepped up. That was the first time in my career I had a backup, a backup who was a superstar. I did OK in the Finals, but Alonzo Mourning, the way he came in and just controlled the defense and controlled the boards, me and him together reminded me of the old Shaq.”
Now, two pillars of the Heat’s first championship will have their jerseys hanging next to each other forever.
COMING UP NEXT
Friday: Heat (10-20) at Pelicans (10-21)
When/where: 8 p.m., Smoothie King Center, New Orleans
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish)
Series: Pelicans lead 16-15
Scouting report: Miami won both regular season meetings last season. Guard Wayne Ellington (strained right hamstring) will not travel with the team and will miss his fourth consecutive game. Rookie Rodney McGruder, who has missed the Heat's last two games with a sprained left ankle, is listed as questionable for Miami.