MIAMI, Fla. - The Miami Heat’s acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer for three role players was a steal, according to a consensus of NBA wise men.
But, as is often the case in these matters, the consensus turned out to be imprecise, if not entirely wrong.
"Steal" doesn’t do the deal justice.
The trade of O’Neal from Los Angeles to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler
and Brian Grant is likely to be remembered as one of the great robberies in sports history.
While the Lakers have descended into the NBA’s netherworld, the Heat have become frontline title contenders. Heading into tonight’s big game with the Suns in Miami, they trail Phoenix by percentage points for the NBA’s best record.
What’s more, they are the buzz of South Florida, which is something akin to the Cardinals taking over the Valley of the Sun.
Miami seldom has been considered a passionate sports town, certainly not in NBA terms. Sellouts were rare over the years, and those who did attend were not exactly passionate about the Heat.
Now, much like in the early days of Charles Barkley in Arizona, Shaq dominates the landscape. Tickets are scarce, and people can’t get enough of the giant superstar-comedian.
Carlos Alvarez, the Miami-Dade County mayor, points out that people in the area speak 64 languages.
"But since Shaquille O’Neal joined the Miami Heat, residents of Miami-Dade County have found one more reason to come together and celebrate," he said.
Manny Diaz, the mayor of the city of Miami, is even more emphatic: "Shaq’s impact has been literally humongous. He’s the biggest professional athlete Miami has ever seen, both in sheer size and world stature.
"There is more excitement surrounding the team than ever before. Miami is the hottest city in the country right now for so many reasons, and it seems that fate may have brought Shaq to us."
The Heat outpaced other NBA franchises in new season-ticket sales.
By the time the trade had been finalized, about 2,000 new season tickets had been sold, general manager Randy Pfund said.
As soon as word got out about the trade, "he had an amazing impact on every aspect of our business," Pfund said.
A waiting list now exists for season tickets. To get on it, fans are required to purchase at least two tickets to three games during the 2004-05 season.
Online ticket sales increased 188 percent from July through December last year over the same period the previous year.
There’s only one reason, of course: the opportunity to see Shaq. Not just any ol’ Shaq, but a motivated, teamoriented Shaq whose numbers are down from past years at 22.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 34 minutes per game.
Heat president Pat Riley told the Miami Herald, "He’s not about himself anymore at all. He is about winning and, yes, he is about wanting to separate himself from the pack."
The Heat’s Eddie Jones, recalling his days with Shaq in the 1990s with the Lakers, said, "Early on he was always sticking needles at you. It was always something.
"Now, you can just tell he understands the role of being a leader and being a teammate."
But he hasn’t lost his ability to entertain, as proven by his recent "godfather" quotes, in which he posed as an aging mobster willing to pass on his empire to young teammate Dwyane Wade (while joking that past teammates Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant couldn’t cut it as successors).
Said Pfund, "He keeps your team in the news. He’s a showman."
He also has been around enough to know that atmosphere counts, so he’s tried to build up everyone on the team, Pfund added.
"Knowing the situation he came from, I know why he was so dissatisfied last year," Pfund said.
"He’s so good at fitting the pieces together. . . . He’s smart at knowing what it takes for a team to win."
So far, so good.
But the long run tells the tale. Will Shaq stay motivated, an intangible that seems to be ever-changing?
"It’s hard to predict," Pfund said. But he noted that all signs so far are positive.
The answer may come next year; Shaq is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer and negotiate a long-term deal with the Heat.
All of this leads into tonight’s visit by the Suns, which may turn out to determine something absolutely nobody foresaw at the season’s start: No. 1 status in the NBA for the regular season.
Not surprisingly, Shaq is looking at the big picture:
"I don’t look at the first few pages of the book, I look at the end of the book," he said. "In other words, if you go 72-10 and don’t win the title, it doesn’t mean (anything).
"I’m just trying to win the whole thing. I don’t really care what our record is as long as we get somewhat of a home-court advantage and we do what we’re supposed to do."