CLEVELAND – Thirteen years ago, the world had walls. Shaquille O’Neal(notes) wanted to be a movie star, a rapper, the most famous basketball player in the world. Never so much that he wanted to leave for the Los Angeles Lakers, but he had to leave. Major markets delivered endorsements and televised games and national press. Wilt and Kareem were liberated to Los Angeles and, ultimately, so was Shaq.
“It was a lot different for me then, than it is for LeBron now,” Shaq says.
Everything has changed. The digital age has changed everything. They can watch you every night on a satellite TV, a laptop, a cell phone. LeBron James(notes) doesn’t need Madison Avenue to be a national icon because his stage in Cleveland has been big enough to make him a global star.
Most of all, the Lakers offered O’Neal the biggest contract, but the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement has since tilted to give the home team the ability to pay the most money in a max contract, to protect the Orlandos and Clevelands when the L.A.s and New Yorks come calling in free agency.
“I had a business decision to make,” said O’Neal, who is the spokesman for the U.S. Marines’ “Toys for Tots” Christmas program for impoverished children; people can donate gifts or money online (www.toysrus.com) or at Toys ‘R’ Us stores across the country.
“I could make more by leaving [for the Lakers], but that’s not the case for LeBron now. He can make more by staying in Cleveland. And yeah, the world is different now. They can see you wherever you play. You don’t have to be in a big market anymore. He doesn’t have to leave Cleveland.”
All these years later, Shaq is 37 and maybe still the most relevant old man in the sport’s history. Great centers have played beautifully pushing 40 years old, but over and over Shaq has reinvented himself. He’s found a new relevance, a transformational storyline. Shaq made basketball matter in Orlando and won three titles with Kobe Bryant(notes) as part of the sport’s most compelling drama. He won his fourth title with Dwyane Wade(notes) and Pat Riley in Miami, and now, done as a franchise player, Shaq’s on a mercenary mission to Cleveland for the most important season in history here.
His job is unmistakable.
Win a ring and keep the king.
Shaq is no longer a dominant force, but is still one of the league’s most commanding stars. Who else in the NBA has the charisma, the stature, to carry his own prime-time TV show? Somehow, Shaq is still the story. Shaq’s still the biggest presence in the room. With these Cavs, with LeBron’s massive persona, even Cleveland management had wondered how ’Bron and Shaq would fit together. So far, so good.
“You can already see them laughing and getting along when they’re sitting together on the bench,” one Eastern Conference scout said, “but you won’t really be able to judge how that will go until something goes wrong – until there’s some kind of adversity.”
When it’s suggested to Shaq that those suspicious of the partnership’s staying power are waiting for a splinter, he scoffs and says, “Egos have never been a problem for me on any team I’ve played on. …What happened in L.A., I would do it all again. We won three titles. There was nothing that hurt us…”
He’s right about this: The creative tension worked well for the Lakers. But ultimately the franchise crumbled under the weight of it all. Truth be told, LeBron doesn’t have the thirst for scoring titles the way Kobe did in those days. Once Bryant won his titles as a young player, he wanted Shaq out of the way and a contender constructed around him.
No one worries that James, so unselfish on the floor, will have an issue with Shaq there. No, it would be away from the floor, where even Shaq will cast a shadow in ’Bron’s hometown. For now, the Celtics come to Cleveland to start the season on Tuesday night and O’Neal will find out fast how desperately the Cavs need his big shoulders for LeBron to lean on. Cleveland made the biggest trade of the summer, and the clock is ticking on LeBron’s free agency as Shaq comes to town for the biggest basketball season ever here. He’s a mercenary now, here today, gone tomorrow. He has one year left on his contract, and he’ll use it to try and get a fifth title for himself and a first for James.
Eventually, Shaq says, “I want to get into ownership, to own a team, but that’s not what I’m thinking about now.” Yes, he’s pushing hard now. He’s pushing for Orlando’s Dwight Howard(notes) and Boston’s Kevin Garnett(notes). Most of all, he’s pushing for a surreal return to the NBA Finals, where Kobe and the Lakers could be waiting for what could be the most celebrated championship series in history.
Thirteen years later, everything has changed in the NBA. Shaq’s no longer the biggest free agent-to-be in history, but maybe the forever star to teach LeBron James that everything he wants in this world can come in Cleveland, can come as a Cavalier. The bright lights, big city are out there for James, but Shaq has come to middle America with an unmistakable message for LeBron: The global game has changed and maybe the sport’s biggest star doesn’t need to leave home and go searching for something. Maybe James can stay here and it’ll all come to him. It was a different day when Shaq and Kareem and Wilt had to go find an iconic address, had to go find basketball’s biggest stage.
Now, Shaquille O’Neal has walked into LeBron’s life in Cleveland, and perhaps that’s one more reminder, one more realization, that anything’s possible here.