Shaquille O’Neal made a few promises to the Heat when Pat Riley traded for him on July 14, 2004.
He kept more than a few of them, leading the franchise to its first NBA title less two years later with a young Dwyane Wade as his wingman.
But Udonis Haslem, the only of O’Neal’s former Heat teammates still playing for the franchise, said he’s been waiting a decade for the larger than life Hall of Fame center to deliver on one of his other promises.
“I’m still waiting on that Bentley he promised us if we won,” Haslem said with a grin.
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O’Neal, who retired in 2011, won’t be delivering a Bentley to Haslem on Thursday.
But he will be in town to call Miami’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers on TNT, and to be a part of a special halftime ceremony when the Heat retires his No. 32 jersey and hangs it up in the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters alongside Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning.
Although O’Neal’s time in Miami came to a messy end with him trading verbal jabs with team president Pat Riley after he was traded to Phoenix in 2008, the franchise has always considered O'Neal the force that helped lift the Heat to a championship level.
It’s why – despite the fact O’Neal only played 3 1/2 seasons in Miami – Riley, owner Micky Arison and the Heat front office found it necessary to make him only the third former Heat player to have his jersey retired.
“It’s not just out of respect, it’s because of what he did for us,” Riley said Wednesday. “He changed our whole world. We spent 10 years banging on the door with Alonzo [Mourning], Tim Hardaway, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, Dwyane [Wade], Lamar [Odom], Caron [Butler], Udonis [Haslem], everybody. We went after him hard, we got him and within two years we were World Champions. He's simply one of the greatest players who ever played. He brought a whole different feeling to this city. He was a global, iconic superstar.”
Riley, 71, acknowledged the criticism the Heat has received for retiring O’Neal’s jersey, but was quick to point out Hardaway had an equally short six-year stint with the Heat. Riley said he and the Heat prefer to honor greatness when jerseys are retired inside the arena. He said that’s why Michael Jordan and Dan Marino have their jerseys retired inside the arena, too.
“Any time a city can spend three and a half years with a player like Shaquille O'Neal and then you win a championship with him, you'll hang his jersey and put it on every poster in Miami,” Riley told WQAM’s Joe Rose on his morning shoe Wednesday. “The people who don't get it they don't get it because they're not part of it. But he's always going to be a part of our history.”
O’Neal said he was genuinely surprised when the Heat reached out to him last year about retiring his jersey and for a while “thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”
He said as angry as he initially was about being traded to Phoenix he understood why Riley and the Heat ultimately made the decision.
“At that point I was in the league 13, 14 years,” O’Neal, 44, said. “I understand the business of basketball. When you got two bullheaded people a decision has to be made. The good thing about Pat and Micky was they called me and said ‘It’s time for us to do something different and I understood.’ I definitely respect Micky for the way he runs the organization. I definitely respect Pat for what he’s done. It’s all business. It’s called the business of basketball.”
Riley said he got over the verbal barbs with O’Neal pretty quickly.
“There’s been a lot of great teams end and they can all ride off into the sunset and there are championships teams that come to an end that weren’t very pretty,” Riley said. “So you get over it quick in this league. I was not the easiest person to play for. I realized that late in my career, which is one of the reasons I got out. Shaq had a point of view, as did a half of a dozen of other veterans that helped us win in 2006.
“It was not personal. Shaq was impeccable with his word. He came down here and he said, `We’re going to win a title’ and we won a title. However we won it was irrelevant. When things come to an end, you don’t take it personal. That’s all there is to it.
“There's no hard feelings at all. I'm an Irish man and I forgive. I always have. I really don't have any ill-feelings toward anybody – even the guys who wear green up in Boston. I don't have it.”
As for his former Heat teammate still here, Haslem said he still occasionally exchanges text messages with O’Neal.
O’Neal said he’s planning on bringing Haslem on stage during Thursday’s ceremony. But that could be a makeup call for the Bentley.
“I did [buy them],” O’Neal said of the cars he promised his teammates if they won the title. “I just got traded away before I could sign the bill of sale. But they’re just sitting there at the Palm Beach Rolls Royce dealership.”
In all seriousness, O’Neal said he does want the Heat crowd to acknowledge Haslem’s sacrifices over the years. That’s why he wants to involve him in the ceremony “so he gets the standing ovation he deserves.”
“UD, he doesn’t get a lot of credit but he was heart and soul of our team,” O’Neal said. “He’s a guy that came to work every day, did whatever the organization asked of him. He even took less money a couple of times just to stay with the Heat.
“He should also get his jersey retired because he’s my hero.”