MIAMI -- Shaquille O'Neal hasn't played a game yet in Miami, but already his presence has overwhelmed a franchise and city hungry for its first NBA championship.
O'Neal was introduced as the Miami Heat's new No. 32 at a news conference Tuesday. He wore jersey No. 34 as a Laker for eight years but is reverting to the number he wore with Orlando for the first four years of his pro career.
"I said at the end of the year I wanted to be on a team, just a team," O'Neal told SportsCenter last week. "Doesn't matter whose 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."
Said Heat president Pat Riley, "We feel that we have traded for the best player in the NBA." Riled added that his team had taken a "giant step" toward getting into the NBA Finals.
Seems everyone in South Florida feels the same. Today's news conference was a gala event, dubbed "Shaq in Black" by the Heat and with O'Neal receiving a key to Miami-Date County, the Miami Herald reported in Tuesday's editions. The paper pointed out that only a select few have been given a key, including 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 Herald. "Shaq hasn't done anything yet, but there's a lot of anticipation about him coming here."
The public celebration took place outside 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 told reporters last week. "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.
O'Neal began his NBA career in Florida 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.
O'Neal also did not hide his disappointment over Phil Jackson not returning as Lakers 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."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.