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Shaq understands his place as role player in Suns' system

PHOENIX -- Shaquille O'Neal went through his first practice
with the Phoenix Suns on Monday, showing no sign of the hip injury
that has sidelined him since Jan. 21.


"It was different. It was very intense," he said after the
one-hour workout. "I learned a lot. Now I can see why they can go
at the pace they play at. When you just do short bursts like this,
then you can save it all for the game."


Just when he will play in a game remained undecided.


"I haven't done anything in a month," O'Neal said, "but I'm
in pretty good shape. It will probably take me a few more days to
get in tune. The good thing about these guys here is they told me
when I'm comfortable, when I'm one-thousand percent, then I can
join them."


Phoenix has two games before the All-Star break -- at Golden
State on Wednesday night and at home against Dallas on Thursday.
The first game after the break is at home against Shaq's old team,
the Los Angeles Lakers, his former coach Phil Jackson and his old
teammate Kobe Bryant.


"I think it's going to take a little bit," coach Mike D'Antoni
said. "It's going to be an adjustment for our guys and for him.
It's hard to think and play basketball at the same time. Right now
he's got to think where he's going to go and all that. But it's
going to be good chemistry and it's going to change things up,
hopefully for the better."


D'Antoni said the Suns will "not rush him back for any
reason." The coach said he will meet with O'Neal and trainer Aaron
Nelson after Tuesday's practice to map out future plans.


Phoenix is 2-1 since the trade last Wednesday that brought
O'Neal from the Miami Heat in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. The Suns have the conference's best record at 36-15 but only
5½ games separate the top nine teams in the West.


O'Neal injured his hip diving for a loose ball against Utah on
Dec. 22. He returned on Jan. 16, but was sidelined again five days
later. An MRI showed inflammation in the left hip, and he was shut
down from all basketball activity.


In going ahead with the trade, the Suns were confident their
training staff would be able to get O'Neal in playing condition.


"The hip's feeling pretty good, better than it's felt in a
while," O'Neal said. "I'm used to just getting injections and
going back out there. They told me they have their style, and they
want me to stick with it."


O'Neal said he needs to get back in basketball shape and has to
be comfortable with playmaker Steve Nash in a system far different
than the one used by Pat Riley in Miami.


"I'm not going to rush anything because this is already a
fine-tuned machine, and any kink could throw it off," O'Neal said.
"I don't want to be the negative kink. I want to step in like I've
been with this team the last three years. I have to make sure that
everything's right."


He's been impressed by much of what he's seen, particularly the
ability of Amare Stoudemire, named Western Conference player of the
week on Monday.


"I didn't know he was that good," O'Neal said. "I really
didn't."


O'Neal's arrival will allow Stoudemire to move to his more
natural power forward position.


"I think it makes my job a little easier," Stoudemire said.
"If you look at me standing beside him I look more like a point
guard than a center."


The entire Phoenix team seemed energized by O'Neal's presence.


"Most practices you don't want to be out there," Grant Hill
said, "but today everybody wanted to be out there and look forward
to making it work. That's going to be the challenge. That's going
to be the fun part."


O'Neal does not expect to be the star.


"I'm a historian of the game, so I understand that on this team
I'm probably a big role player, and I have no problem with that,"
O'Neal said. "I did my thing in my prime, and it's Amare's prime
right now. I think it's my job to get him to the next level. Toward
the end of my career, I have no problem coming here and just
fitting in and just helping these guys get to the next level."


He compares his job to the role of an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
on the "Showtime" Lakers teams of Magic Johnson and James Worthy.


"Kareem was fortunate enough to have those style of players
around him toward the end of his career, and I sort of feel like
him now," O'Neal said. "I'm no idiot. I'm not going to come in
here trying to take over and take 30 shots. I'm going to fit in
very nicely -- rebound, outlet to Steve, get some easy buckets, play
some defense. That's all we need to do."