ACROSS THE blue-green waters of Biscayne Bay stand a couple of his unfinished condominiums. On the poolside table sits his lunch, grilled chicken and grilled vegetables, a repast befitting a slimmed-down Shaquille O'Neal--a description that is relative in his case. But in this splendid setting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Miami's newest and best-known real-estate baron/incredible shrinking man/basketball messiah has his mind on only one thing: Photoshop. ¬∂ Shaq buttonholes a photographer for potential assistance with Photoshop. He politely asks a stranger working on a computer, "You got Photoshop on there?" He enlists Tim Donovan, the Miami Heat's public relations chief, to contact a Photoshop expert in the team's office. O'Neal wants to learn how to use the digital image software to transfer a picture of his face onto the body of an old man, just as a goof to e-mail to some friends. This is Shaq at 32, just as he was at 20, when he was an Orlando Magic rookie: an oversized kid in constant search of fun-filled ways to kill time.
Of most compelling interest to Miami, and of seismic impact on the NBA, is the fact that Shaq's 7'1" and 330 pounds now come wrapped in a number 32 Heat uniform. The July 14 trade that sent O'Neal to the Sunshine State and Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a first-round pick to the Kobe State was the most significant deal in a raft of off-season moves--more than 100 players changed addresses--that put many familiar faces in new places (chart).
Much has been said and written about the pressure on Kobe Bryant, now clearly the Los Angeles Lakers' heart and soul (though O'Neal would argue that he has little of either). But Shaq may bear an even heavier burden in Miami. It was O'Neal, after all, who demanded the trade after assessing--accurately, it turns out--that Lakers owner Jerry Buss was more infatuated with Bryant than with either him or coach Phil Jackson, who was not offered a new contract. Even if Kobe scores 40 points a game, L.A. will not be expected to win the Western Conference title, while the Heat became an East trifavorite (with the defending champion Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers) the moment O'Neal's feet hit the South Beach sand.
"Having Shaq in the conference," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh, "changes everything." Short on capable big men, the East is a conference where a team can make a sudden leap to the top, as the Pistons did last season. And O'Neal leads Miami into battle with a gifted young lieutenant, second-year guard Dwyane Wade, the designated franchise player before Shaq's arrival.
Yes, the time is ripe for the Heat to rise. Whether it does will depend to a large degree on whether the Big Photoshop is the Shaq of three years ago or the XXXXXL Shaq with the arthritic right big toe who limped his way through titleless seasons in 2002-03 and '03-04. "I know which one you're going to see," says O'Neal, stabbing a couple of pieces of chicken. "Being here feels like I'm out of prison. This is the right place, the right time, the right team. Everybody knows there were reasons we didn't get it done out there."
We will get to those reasons, of course, for what would a story about Shaq or Kobe be without a paragraph or two of mutual condemnation? The Heat-Lakers game scheduled for Christmas Day in Los Angeles is already circled on Shaq's calendar. "It's going to be the highest-rated game ever," he says in a delightful bit of hyperbolic nonsense. Shaq's fervid interest in the game means that somewhere along the line Bryant will peer into a camera and with a straight face say something like, It's just another game to me. I'm not even sure who starts for them. For now though, it's most interesting to observe what an outsized personality such as O'Neal brings to a franchise that has, over the last several seasons, been undersized, figuratively and literally.
His arrival has certainly given Heat president Pat Riley, the man who picked Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak's pocket on the deal, renewed energy. Riley is reluctant to get front-and-center in the Shaq story because of rumors that he will replace Stan Van Gundy as coach should the team fail to live up to expectations, rumors that seem ludicrous since it was Riley who turned over the reins to Van Gundy last October and was ecstatic when his longtime assistant turned in a job worthy of coach-of-the-year consideration. After first agreeing to pose with O'Neal for an SI cover shoot, Riley demurred, saying it sends the wrong message. But Riley can't hide his excitement; it seems to have put the gleam back in his mousse. "We--I--haven't been getting it done for our owner and the fans the last few years," says Riley, who guided the superstar-laden Lakers to four championships in the 1980s, and joined the Heat in '95. "Shaq gives us a chance to do that. Any time you bring a superstar to your franchise, sure, there's pressure on everybody. But that's what you live for."
Now, Miami has the basis for restructuring the offense around a low-post presence, as well as a three-time champion to inspire its younger players. "Shaquille has taken this leadership thing very, very seriously," says Van Gundy. "Your team will never work harder than its best player works, and so far Shaq has worked as hard as anybody." O'Neal has repeatedly sung Wade's praises, giving the younger player a renewed sense of confidence after his pitiful shooting exhibition at the Summer Olympics. "I didn't know if he'd ever seen me play [for the Heat], because we weren't on TV that much," says the 22-year-old Wade, smiling. "It flattered me to hear him talk about my game. Everything is different since he came here. The players are excited about practice, and the city is excited about us. It's like a charge went through everybody."
What the trade has given O'Neal is a chance to prove that he can take a team to a championship without the support of a fellow superstar like Bryant. And a bunch of other things, too, for even a man who will make $27.7 million this season and has an option to make $30.6 million the next must keep his eyes open for moonlighting opportunities. "L.A. was so full of everybody doing their thing that even somebody like me could get lost," says O'Neal. "It's different down here. I said I wanted to promote one 24-hour Fitness Club and--boom!--next thing I know I'm doing 10. I'm into real estate. I'm talking to a bunch of people about a bunch of things." He smiles widely. "I got a chance to come down here and expand."
What's pleasing to the Heat, though, is the degree to which O'Neal has made fitness a priority. The new home where he lives with his wife, Shaunie, and five children in the Star Island section of Miami ("over on the causeway with all the foo-foo people," as he calls it, which is close enough to frou-frou to count) is a short drive from AmericanAirlines Arena, affording him easy access to the team's training facility. In the month before camp opened, Shaq says, he worked out in the morning with teammates, then returned as late as midnight for solitary sessions "after I put the family to bed." He mostly played pickup games and ran on the treadmill. "No lifting, nothing to get bigger," says O'Neal. "I did that out in L.A. because they wanted me to. Now it's about getting quicker." He shaved 20 to 25 pounds--he'd love to lose 10 more--and looks much like the Shaq of a decade ago.
That is important because, although Van Gundy rejiggered his offense to fit O'Neal's talents, the coach has demanded that the center amp up his defense to match the aggressive style that has defined the Heat since Riley's arrival. That means Shaq must come out to defend on high pick-and-rolls, long the weakest part of his game. At week's end, a pulled left hamstring had kept O'Neal from proving he was up to that task.
Without prompting, Shaq broaches the subject of once again becoming the league's leading scorer (which he was with Orlando in 1994-95 and with the Lakers in 1999-2000), all the while denying that he's thinking about it. "My formula has always been seven points a quarter," he says. "Dominique [Wilkins] told me that in my third year, after I got a bunch of points against the Hawks in the first half and then didn't do anything in the second. 'Just break it down into four seven-point quarters,' he told me. 'That gets you 28.' Man, if I can't do that, I might as well hang it up."
Asked why he couldn't do it last season--his 21.5 points per game were the lowest of his career, during which he has averaged 27.1--and Shaq is off and running. "Everybody knows I was getting screwed by the young fella," says O'Neal, who almost never refers to Bryant by name. "I'm a 60 percent shooter [57.7 for his career], and I've got to beg for the ball? What the hell is that? I'd get open and the young fella wouldn't get it to me. It's going to be different now. I'm getting passes from these guys in one day that I never got [in L.A.] in eight years. Shovel passes, lobs, things I've never seen. Throw me the ball 25 times, and I'm going to get you the same numbers I've always got. Shaq ain't Shaq if he's averaging 20 points."
In O'Neal's most dominant seasons (he was Finals MVP every year during the Lakers' three-peat from 2000 through '02) he would attempt at least one field goal every 2.0 minutes of playing time; last year that figure was one shot every 2.6 minutes. The Shaq side of the story is that Bryant, the franchise favorite, turned into a remorseless gunner who froze him out. The Bryant side is that Shaq was out of shape, undermotivated and out of position to get the ball. The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in between.
Since the trade Bryant has been relatively quiet on the subject of Shaq, but comments he made while they were still teammates have resonated the loudest in this dis-fest. A police report that became public last month, after a sexual assault case against Bryant was dropped, reveals that on July 2, 2003, shortly after the incident in a Colorado hotel room that changed his life, Bryant told investigators that Shaq had paid women up to $1 million to remain silent about sexual encounters. O'Neal denies vehemently he has ever done so.
"I never hung out with the guy, I never called him and we were never friends," says Shaq, pushing away his plate. "It shows you what type of person he is. He gets in trouble, and my name comes out of his mouth. What kind of person does that? He's the one who had to buy love." (That last reference was to Bryant's purchasing a $4 million, eight-carat ring for his wife, Vanessa, after he was accused of rape.) Over the course of an otherwise pleasant afternoon, Shaq also calls Bryant "a loser," "a joke," "a clown" and "pathetic," and even denigrated Bryant's abilities as a player. When it is suggested that he might miss Bryant's perimeter shooting, Shaq gets a sour look on his face. "What are you talking about, calling number 8 a shooter?" he says. "Listen, I'm not just saying this because he's my teammate, but D-Wade has the potential to be a better player than anyone I ever played with in L.A. I'm talking about being a shooter, a defender and someone with an all-around game. And a good guy along with it."
Shaq is not so impetuous as to predict a championship this season, but he says that a title is his ultimate goal in Miami. There is a precedent: When Moses Malone, another dominant center, was traded from Houston to Philadelphia after the '81-82 season, he promptly led the 76ers to the title. But Malone was a 27-year-old coming off an MVP season, and he had the considerable assistance of players such as Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. Saying that Wade can be better than Bryant does not make it so. Burning up the treadmill in September is not the same as running the floor in February. Rushing out to defend on pick-and-rolls in October does not mean it will still be happening come March.
Here's one good sign for the Heat, though: A few days before Miami's preseason began, Shaq abandoned his Photoshop quest. "I got other things to do," he said. "Basketball things." Perhaps he came to realize that the demands soon to be placed on his real body are formidable enough.
It was the summer of new destinations for a number of players besides Shaquille O'Neal. Here are 10 other significant personnel moves, listed in order of the impact they will have on the standings this season. --J.M.
1 TRACY MCGRADY Rockets
Acquired from Magic in seven-player trade
With T-Mac on the perimeter and Yao in the middle, is a McMing Dynasty dawning?
2 BRENT BARRY Spurs
Signed four-year, $19.6 million free-agent deal
Search for long-distance shooter (a la Steve Kerr) to complement Tim Duncan has ended
3 ANTONIO MCDYESS Pistons
Signed four-year, $22.6 million free-agent deal
Forward-thinking Detroit gets another banger to help battle potent big men in the West
4 KENYON MARTIN Nuggets
Acquired from Nets in sign-and-trade for three future first-round picks
Imposing power forward's trade makes Denver's front line meaner, New Jersey's leaner
5 CARLOS BOOZER Jazz
Signed six-year, $70.1 million free-agent deal
Did he break his promise to re-up with Cavs? Maybe, but he'll fit perfectly with this rugged bunch
6 STEPHEN JACKSON Pacers
Acquired from Hawks for Al Harrington
Swingman answers three Indiana deficiencies: three-point shooting, toughness, Finals experience
7 STEVE NASH Suns
Signed five-year, $52.6 million free-agent deal
Arrival of crazy-coiffed playmaker gives Phoenix an identity--and strips one from the Mavs
8 JAMAL CRAWFORD Knicks
Acquired from Bulls in six-player sign-and-trade
Young, athletic guard provides backup for Stephon Marbury, insurance for Allan Houston
9 GARY PAYTON Celtics
Acquired from Lakers in five-player trade
Irked at first, the Glove says he's happy; team's last elite point guard was Dennis Johnson
10 ANTOINE WALKER Hawks
Acquired from Mavericks in four-player trade
Along with arrival of Harrington, woeful Atlanta has bookend forwards to build around