- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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QUINCY, Mass. -- Shaquille O'Neal lounged in his family room last June observing the Lakers' championship celebration on his flat-screen television, listening to the comments of former teammate Kobe Bryant with a bemused smile.
When asked what his fifth championship meant to him personally, Bryant declared, "I got one more than Shaq. So you can take that to the bank."
"My first thought [after hearing that] was, 'Well, I guess I'm still relevant,'" O'Neal said. "Kobe is still thinking about me, I guess. I'm still someone to be measured against.
"But I don't compete with little guards. I don't compete with little guys who run around dominating the ball, throwing up 30 shots a night -- like D-Wade, Kobe.
"Now if Tim Duncan said it, I'd be pissed. He's the only guy I'm competing with. If Tim Duncan gets five rings, then that gives some writer the chance to say 'Duncan is the best,' and I can't have that."
NBA training camps open across the country Monday and Shaq, the newest, biggest, oldest and most accommodating Celtic, wasted no time in firing salvos toward the West Coast and South Beach.
Get used to it. The self-described "mini Charles Barkley" plans to speak his mind in his "final 730 days" as an NBA icon, beginning with his on-again, off-again nemesis Bryant.
Shaq and Kobe's fractured relationship had seemingly been glued back together in 2006, but that reconciliation has proved to be tenuous at best. Real or imagined, Shaq and Kobe's sparring match is a delicious subplot to a Celtics-Lakers rivalry already steeped in history and intrigue.
Shaq wants another championship and Boston, he figures, is the perfect backdrop to pad his résumé. His relationships with Boston's veterans are sound, he said, including Ray Allen, the disciplined, persnickety Celtic who on the surface would seem to be the antithesis of the Big Shamrock. Shaq claims his mother and Ray Allen's mother, Flo, are the best of friends, so, he reported, "Don't worry. I know everything I need to know about Ray."
Here's what the Celtics have learned about O'Neal. He is trim, focused and hungry to begin. Shaq mulled over a trendy downtown townhouse in the Back Bay before choosing a home in suburban Sudbury instead.
"I'm out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere," he said. "I've got my whole season set. I chose to live way out there so I can get up, go to practice, come home, take a nap, then get up and go to the Thoreau Club [in Concord] and do some more work.
"I want my concentration to be right where it should be. No distractions."
O'Neal appeared at the Granite Hill Links Club this past Thursday to support the Shamrock Foundation's annual charity golf event and, in an interview with ESPN Boston, expressed relief that he will be just one of many veterans trying to win it all instead of a mentor for a host of young players to draw from. In previous incarnations, Shaq served as Kobe's big brother in Los Angeles, a father figure to Dwayne Wade in Miami, and an extra bodyguard for LeBron James in Cleveland last season.
"For once in my career, I won't have to hold anybody's hand and they won't have to hold mine," he said. "I'm surrounded by veterans. We had a great battle [last Thursday] at HealthPoint. It was something I never had before -- three, four, really great players all in one pickup game.
"It was me, Kevin [Garnett], Marquis [Daniels] and the Turkish guy [Semih Erden] against Ray [Allen], Paul [Pierce], Jermaine [O'Neal] and Big Baby. Amazing. Really high intensity."
O'Neal predicts Daniels, who was injured early last season and never won the confidence of Doc Rivers upon his return, will play a more significant role this season.
"I know Marquis well," he said. "I know what language he speaks. He's gonna help us, I know that.
"He's one of those players who got caught up in the system. He'd be a starter on a lot of other teams. But here, he's not going to play over Paul, or Ray, or Rondo.
"So he's coming off the bench and I told him, 'It's going to be great.' I told the same thing to Nate [Robinson], Big Baby. I told them, 'Here we come. We're the BBM -- Boston Bench Mob.'"
Shaq has repeatedly insisted he doesn't care whether he starts or comes off the bench for the Celtics, but indicated he expects to be part of the second unit.
"Doc and I have had some conversations," Shaq said. "Really, at this point of my career, it doesn't matter. Jermaine is younger than me. If they want to start the younger guy, fine with me."
With the retirement of Lindsey Hunter, O'Neal, at the age of 38, officially earns the distinction of the oldest player in the league. He maintains he can still be a dominant low-post threat and believes his inability to defend the pick-and-roll has been overstated.
He is aware his reputation precedes him. Shaq's departures from Orlando, Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix proved to be acrimonious, a pattern that left some general managers believing he was radioactive in the locker room. O'Neal points to his time in Cleveland last season as evidence he can thrive as an elder statesman.
"It was great in Cleveland," he said. "Liked it there. No arguments, no conflicts. We just couldn't get it done."
Shaq enjoyed the company of league MVP LeBron James, but, he said, did not get to know him as well as other young superstars he's played with.
"LeBron was a player who had it all," Shaq explained. "I didn't need to talk to him much. He didn't need a whole lot of help. He was already a team player, a physical player."
Shaq hasn't spoken with James since they both left Cleveland, nor was he privy to what transpired in the days leading up to "The Decision," an ill-fated publicity stunt that has left LeBron's reputation in tatters. O'Neal missed the one-hour ESPN special because he was at a water park with his kids, but was inundated with text messages, e-mails and phone messages as it unfolded.
Asked what advice he would have offered LeBron, Shaq answered, "Experience is the best teacher. He'll learn from it. A lot of guys own their brand. Other guys have people run their brand for them.
"I've always made my own decisions on how my career was going to go."
O'Neal said one of the main draws of Boston was to play alongside Garnett, a player he said was unfairly maligned last season.
"Kevin looks really good," he said. "He had a season [last year] sort of like mine. He's a big-time player who got an injury, and no one would give him the benefit of the doubt. He's got this bum knee and everyone wants to write him off.
"Me too. I hurt my thumb, have surgery and all of a sudden, it's 'Shaq is done.'
"Well, I'm not done."
Hardly. Actually, The Big Shamrock is just getting warmed up.
Jackie MacMullan, who spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.