When Shaquille O’Neal is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, it will cap off an incredible career which first burst onto the scene as a unstoppable dunkman at LSU to an NBA champion in Los Angeles — and in Miami.
Pat Riley recently told the Palm Beach Post that acquiring the disgruntled Shaq in a deal with the Lakers in 2004 was “the most important-to-bring-it-all-together acquisition.”
When O’Neal and the Lakers appeared to be at the end of their relationship after he and Kobe Bryant won three titles in Los Angeles, Riley was able to swing a deal with the Lakers and sent Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first round pick west for O’Neal.
The Miami Heat, a team that rumbled with the New York Knicks in the 1990s and lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1997 Eastern Conference finals, were a true contender once Shaq came to town.
“When Shaq came on the market,” Riley told the Post, “he was a three-time world champion and he was still in his prime. You got to be kidding me.”
O’Neal joined forces with Dwyane Wade — then heading into his second season, fresh off his opening-round heroics against the Hornets in the opening round of his rookie playoff series — and promised he would bring a championship to Miami.
“It’s going to be fun,’’ O’Neal said.
And it was.
After winning 59 games and sweeping New Jersey and Washington in the playoffs during Shaq’s first season in Miami, the Heat lost to the Pistons in 7 and fell short of the Finals.
The following season, after an 11-10 start, coach Stan Van Gundy stepped down and Riley took over coaching the team. Miami ended with 52 wins and took out Chicago, New Jersey and the Pistons in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Heat then rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the 2006 NBA Finals against the Mavericks and won the team’s first title.
O’Neal would never again win a championship and he and the Heat parted ways with a trade to Phoenix in 2008 as the relationship between the two crumbled.
Yet as O’Neal reflects on his larger-than-life basketball career, there’s little doubt he looks back at his time down south with fondness.
And the Heat, despite the late drama, seems to feel the same as it will retire Shaq’s No. 32 sometime this coming season.