O'Neal already showcasing old numbers

Updated: July 20, 2004, 11:17 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

MIAMI -- Shaquille O'Neal hasn't played a game yet in Miami, but already his numbers are getting smaller.

After wearing No. 34 with the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal will revert to No. 32 with the Heat, the number he wore at the start of his NBA career with the Orlando Magic.

O'Neal will be introduced as the Miami Heat's new No. 34 at a news conference scheduled today (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The Lakers and Heat finalized a trade last week that sent Shaquille O'Neal to Miami, with Los Angeles getting Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick in return.

"I said at the end of the year I wanted to be on a team, just a team," O'Neal said in an exclusive interview with SportsCenter that aired Wednesday. "Doesn't matter who's team it was, I just wanted to be on the team and I wanted things to go right. I wanted things to go like they were supposed to. And if things were not going to go like that, then I wanted to be traded."

The deal, ending O'Neal's eight-year tenure in Los Angeles, had been on the verge of completion since Saturday, when he met in Orlando with Heat president Pat Riley and agreed to the trade. NBA attorneys approved it hours after the league's two-week moratorium on player movement ended.

"We feel that we have traded for the best player in the NBA," Riley said, adding that his team had taken a "giant step forward" in getting into the NBA Finals.

Seems everyone in South Florida feels the same. Today's news conference looks to be a gala event, entitled "Shaq in Black" by the Heat and with O'Neal receiving a key to Miami-Date County, reported the Miami Herald on Tuesday. The paper points out that only a select few have been given the key, VIPs such as King Juan Carlos of Spain, Evander Holyfield and a Vatican official close to the Pope.

"We don't just give one to anyone," county spokeswoman Lynn Norman-Teck told the paper. "Shaq hasn't done anything yet, but there's a lot of anticipation about him coming here."

The public celebration will take place outside the AmericanAirlines Arena.

The 7-foot-1, 340-pound O'Neal transforms into a title threat a franchise that has reached the conference finals only once in its 16-year history. The Heat have won one playoff series in the past four years and went 42-40 last season.

"I never imagined that we would acquire Shaquille O'Neal," guard Eddie Jones said. "It's once-in-a-lifetime trying to get a player like this guy. It's an unbelievable, unbelievable move."

At 32, O'Neal is coming off a season when he averaged a career-low 21.5 points, and he has missed 15 games each of the past three seasons with foot and leg injuries. But he's an 11-time All-Star with career averages of 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, and he's moving to the Eastern Conference, where there's a dearth of dominating centers.

"I've always said that wherever he is, that's where the balance of power is," Indiana Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said.

The trade marks a return to Florida for O'Neal, who began his NBA career in 1992 with Orlando and still has a home there. He led the Magic to the Finals in 1995, signed with the Lakers as a free agent in 1996 and helped them win three NBA titles.

Days after the Lakers lost this year's championship series to Detroit, O'Neal demanded to be traded, weary of feuding with Kobe Bryant and feeling disrespected by general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Jerry Buss. He's under contract for $27.7 million this coming season and $30.6 million in 2005-06.

On the last time he talked to Jerry Buss, O'Neal told SportsCenter, "I don't think I have ever had a conversation with him."

On his opinion of Kupchak, "I don't have an opinion," O'Neal said, adding that the changing makeup of the Lakers under Kupchak "tells me that this is a cut-throat business. I kind of went through this before with Orlando and being there with the Lakers for eight years, and you could cause the No. 1 player and the No. 1 executive [Jerry West] to leave, that should tell me you're cut-throat.

"A lot of people might think I have hard feelings, I don't have hard feelings," though he offered an under-handed compliment of Bryant.

"I think he's a great player," O'Neal told SportsCenter. "If he did the little things, he would be the greatest player to ever play the game. Make everybody else better. He would be the greatest player ever. Better than [Jordan], better than Shaq, better than Duncan."

At one time the Mavericks were working on draft-related deals to acquire O'Neal.

"I know for a fact that Mitch didn't want to trade me in the conference because he knows what kind of guy I am," O'Neal said. "He knows if he were to trade me in the conference, [the Lakers] would have had trouble. Smart, smart move on his part."

O'Neal also did not hide his disappointment over Phil Jackson not returning as coach and not being made aware of management's decision not to re-sign Jackson.

"Nobody told me Phil Jackson was going to be fired," he told SportsCenter. "I'm not the owner of the team, but when a guy takes you to the Finals four out of the five years, [with] the turmoil he had to go through, that just tells me he's a great coach, point blank period."

The Lakers' most significant acquisition is the versatile Odom, coming off the best season in his five-year NBA career. He and Butler were considered cornerstones in the Heat's recent rebuilding effort, while Grant is a 10-year veteran.

Riley said he was saddened to part with all three players.

"It disheartens me to see them leave," Riley said. "However, you don't get many chances to acquire the best player in the league, and this was a trade I felt we had to make."

With the departure of three starters, Riley will build his team around O'Neal, Olympian Dwyane Wade and Jones, Miami's leading scorer each of the last four seasons. The Heat will now shop for help at both forward positions and backup point guard, and free agents will likely consider Miami a more appealing option with the addition of O'Neal.

"Everybody wants to be here now," said Jones, who played with O'Neal in Los Angeles from 1996 to 1998.

Each player involved in the trade must pass a physical before joining his new team. O'Neal's first appearance in South Florida is expected to be Tuesday, the Heat said.

He instantly becomes Miami's highest-profile athlete, and Heat ticket sales have been brisk this week.

"Over at the business office of the AmericanAirlines Arena, it's like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right now," Riley said. "It's absolutely a frenzy."

O'Neal is moving from one city enthralled by celebrities to another, but there are a lot more of them in Los Angeles than in Miami, and O'Neal is likely to become the biggest thing on South Beach.

"There's a lot of excitement going around in the city," Heat guard Rasual Butler said. "They call Shaquille O'Neal 'Big Daddy' for a reason -- because everything he does is big. And it's big news that he's coming here."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE