Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley’s run together with the Miami Heat was a short-lived, 3 1/2 year marriage that reached its peak with the franchise’s first championship in 2006 and ended a mere 18 months later with the 15-time All-Star center being shipped off to Phoenix after he and the team president nearly came to blows.
It was fun, beautiful and a whole lot of ugly at the end.
But with the larger-than-life 7-1, 325-pound charismatic center set to be enshrined into the basketball Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield, Massachussets — with former Heat teammate Alonzo Mourning among his four presenters — it’s become clear Riley, 71, and O’Neal, 44, have reconciled their differences in the past year.
O’Neal, during his Hall of Fame media tour, has praised Riley for his leadership and vision as a coach while Riley went as far as calling O’Neal the most important acquisition in franchise history earlier this week — bigger than LeBron James and Chris Bosh, who helped form the Big 3… and bigger than the 1995 trade for Mourning, which put the Heat on the map.
For two Hall of Famers who couldn’t stand each other at the end, it’s considerable progress.
“Before we won the title in 2006, before every game when I was sitting on the bench waiting for the game to start, he would come over and sit down next to me and take a look at the play I had diagrammed for the first play of the game,” Riley said via email Thursday when asked by the Miami Herald to share some of his favorite Shaq moments with the Heat.
“He would say, ‘Good play, just bring it down low coach.’ Then, he would rub my Laker championship ring and say, ‘I am going to get you one here.’ We got one.”
O’Neal, who would bring a smile to Riley’s face by bringing a rose every night to the arena for the mother-in-law of owner Micky Arison, told Inside the NBA host and TNT colleague Ernie Johnson in a TV special Wednesday night that his time with the Heat was special.
“It was special because I know I was getting older and I was starting to lose it a little bit,” said O’Neal, who won his fourth and final ring with the Heat at age 33. “Pat Riley was awesome. D-Wade was awesome.”
While O’Neal said Wade was ultimately the reason why the Heat rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Mavericks and win the title, he credited Riley with motivating him to a level that other coaches couldn’t. O’Neal shared several stories of Riley’s motivational tactics, including the time the coach buried his head in a bucket of ice water for more than three minutes to show the team they were capable of doing something they didn’t think was possible.
“Being that he was there before and he won a championship, the guys believed him,” O’Neal said. “I believed him. Because, you know, it took coaches like that to get me to play at that next level. No disrespect to my other coaches, but if I’m playing for a guy that’s been there before I know he knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to follow him to the end.
Being that he was there before and he won a championship, the guys believed him. I believed him. Because, you know, it took coaches like that to get me to play at that next level. No disrespect to my other coaches, but if I’m playing for a guy that’s been there before I know he knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to follow him to the end.
Shaquille O’Neal, on former coach Pat Riley
“He’s probably one of the greatest motivators — him and Dale Brown [O’Neal’s coach at LSU]. When they tell stories before games you just want to go out and kill people. [Riley’s] speeches and his stories, I always tell people that’s what always took me to the next level — not training and going out in the gym three hours — conversation.”
In February it was announced O’Neal was going to join Mourning and Tim Hardaway as the only players in franchise history to have their jerseys retired with a special ceremony early at the start of the upcoming season.
A Heat spokesman said Thursday the team still hasn’t decided which game O’Neal will be honored, but noted it will happen before January.
O’Neal will ultimately be honored Friday for his 19-year career, four NBA titles (three with the Los Angeles Lakers) and overall influence on the game. But his impact on the Heat — albeit during a relatively short window — remains impressive.
O’Neal ranks second in field-goal percentage (59.6 percent), third in scoring average (19.6), sixth in blocks (384), seventh in free throws attempted (1,708), eighth in offensive rebounds (621), ninth in double-doubles (84), 11th in total rebounds (1,856), 12th in defensive rebounds (1,235), 12th in field goals made (1,612), 13th in free throws made (786), 14th in points (4,010), 14th in double-figure scoring games (191), 14th in starts (203) and 15th in field goals attempted (2,703).
Friday, he’ll join Mourning and Gary Payton as the only players to wear Heat uniforms to reach the Hall of Fame.
“I’m going to put it into rap terms,” O’Neal told SiriusXM radio this week of where he ranks in Heat history among its biggest acquisitions. “I was the first great song, and then The Big Three was the remix.”