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This NBA offseason, a slew of elite ballers escaped the league's jalopies for cushier rides. In what amounted to a summer-long arms race among the NBA's top title chasers, no contender landed a bigger whupping stick than the Cleveland Cavaliers with their acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaq, who was shipped to Cleveland in a trade that landed Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace in Phoenix, will be counted on to play many roles for the Eastern Conference runner-up. Among them: tutor to a roster void of championship pedigree; viable safety valve during tempo-stunting playoff ball; bruising counter to the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard; and human flower bouquet in the front office's courtship of LeBron James, who could leave in free agency next summer.
O'Neal's arrival gives James his best shot to date at securing a title, but it inspires questions, too. At 38, does the Big Diesel have the wheels and gas to keep up?
What's your read of the Cavs' locker room, and how will you fit in there?
Shaq: I'd heard their locker room is very fun, and I might just make it funner. I might make it the funnest locker room ever. I should fit in well with what they got going.
When was the first time you met LeBron, and what was your impression?
I met LeBron when he was 16 or 17, a junior or senior in high school. He was a nice, respectful momma's boy. His momma was in the stands, saying, "That's my kid, that's my baby." He's always been a good kid, from what I've heard. And I thought he was a fabulous player then. One of those players where it wasn't fair he was in high school. What I liked about him was, even though he could score 100 points a game and had teammates who probably weren't going to make it, he would kick it to his boys for the jump shot. He knew how to get everyone involved even back then.
You two have a lot in common, including your love of music. Who's controlling the iPod over there?
I'm usually controlling the iPod. Not really in the locker room, but in the weight room. I like to mix it up. Like, I'll usually have a "White Boy Wednesday" or something. [laughs] It ain't my locker room, though. We'll see what happens.
Which do you think will get more play: Jay-Z or old Shaq joints?
Probably Jay-Z. Jay-Z a bad man. And he's the better rapper, probably. But it's cool. I did what I wanted to do, accomplished many things for a person who's not really supposed to. I went platinum twice, won a couple of awards for my commercials, won an Emmy when I did a Nickelodeon thing. Also won the worst movie award for "Kazaam." Nobody will ever do it like me. My thing is to make people happy.
Why do you think it's taken LeBron so long to warm up to acting?
I'm not sure he's had the perfect opportunity. When I came up, they paid me $7 million for "Kazaam." I'm not gonna ever turn that down. Ever. I don't care what the critics say.
Do you think he's too guarded with his image?
I don't know. I don't read into people's image. To me, image is reality. And I'm the realest guy out there.
He's one of the few NBAers who's not on Twitter yet.
I don't think LeBron's missing out. I don't think he needs to do it. He's already up there in stature. Some guys are so big, they can't get any bigger. A lot of guys are doing [Twitter] just to be famous. Mine was by accident. What I try to do is make them smile. I don't tweet things like, "Hey, I'm doing an interview with ESPN! I just bought a diamond bracelet! Check it out!" I'll hit you with a viral video or a quote to make you laugh. The other day, I saw a plane crash, and the man walked up out of that thing. So I tweeted that. Other guys just wanna talk about themselves.
Did you give LeBron any crap about Dunkgate?
I can't give him any crap. Being on both sides of the media, I've learned to only react to stuff I know is factual. I don't know that he did what the media said he did, getting dunked on and having his boy get that video. Maybe it was somebody at Nike. Know what I'm sayin'?
I do. Besides, why would he care?
That dunk was terrible! The way they was talking, I thought it was a [sex tape]. That was a tiny, puny dunk. Remember when [Shawn] Kemp dunked on Alton Lister, or Vince Carter dunked on Alonzo [Mourning]? Those were dunks. That bull---- little dunk? Terrible.
You ever dunk on LeBron?
I don't know.
Has he ever dunked on you?
I've only been dunked on once in 17 years. Look it up. I don't get dunked on. Something gonna happen if you try to dunk on me.
Which was more embarrassing: that dunk, or you getting denied at the White House gate?
[laughs] The White House, but that wasn't really that embarrassing. Working in law enforcement, you understand national security. I like the fact that they stood their ground. So what if I'm Shaq? I'm big, but I'm not that big. I didn't have the clearance. Now, listen, if I were to use my political connections, get on the phone in D.C., I could've easily made it in. But I wanted to see if I could get in without cheating.
LeBron campaigned for Obama. Gonna hit him up for an introduction?
[laughs] Nah, I'm good.
Something else LeBron got an odd amount of heat for: What are your thoughts on his decision to skip out on the post-elimination handshake with the Magic?
That was stupid, too. I walk off the court without shaking hands all the time. All the time. Ain't no rule saying you gotta shake nobody's hands. If I don't like you, I'm not touching you. I don't give a s--- what nobody says. I don't want to jinx us, but if we do everything right, we won't be faced with that decision [shaking hands after being eliminated]. But hey, if we are, don't expect me to shake your hand.
How do you feel about living in Cleveland, small market and all?
I think I'll fit well in Cleveland. I've been everywhere. San Antonio, in high school, was a small market. So was Baton Rouge and Orlando. Oh, put me in L.A.? Cool. I'm groomed to be in L.A. Oh, I'm going to Miami? All the same to me. I was in Phoenix for two years. No problems there, either. To go from a 30,000-square-foot house to a small apartment on the waterfront, all the same to me.
How much gas do you have left in the tank?
I don't want to be disrespectful to the Phoenix organization, because they're a great organization, but in these times, it's a business. Guys usually get traded because they want to be traded or they ain't [expletive]. I had great numbers last season. All-Star MVP. It's not like I wasn't playing [hard]. It was a business move by a business guy, and I'm a business guy as well. I don't want to be somewhere where I'm 38 and have to win it by myself. If you wanna move me, fine, I understand, thank you. But Cleveland is where I want to go.
What's the key to success for your guys?
Playing together, but I'm not going to talk about that. They already do that. I think a lot of it is going to be luck. Look, I've got four rings, but three of them was luck. The first one, Kobe won that. The second one, if D-Fish don't hit that shot in San Antonio, it's over. The third one, if Robert Horry don't hit that 3 over Sacramento, that's over. The fourth one, in Miami, if GP don't hit that shot over Dallas, I don't get that ring. And this year, if Fish don't hit that 3, it's a different series. Gotta be lucky to win it.
They're calling you LeBron's bodyguard. They're saying you were brought there to counter Dwight Howard.
We're not even worried about Dwight Howard.
Not even a little bit?
Look, his team did a great job of surrounding him with four shooters. If you have one big man with four shooters, like I always had with the Lakers and Heat, it's over. Those shooters, [Mickael] Pietrus, [Hedo] Turkoglu, they hit some big shots.
It's not that Orlando was better. It's just that Cleveland was one piece away. And they have that piece now. So, they're calling me LeBron's bodyguard? That's cool. Call me the Big Witness Protection.
There are some concerns that you'll slow the Cavs down.
I can play slow or fast.
You really think you can play fast?
Of course I can play fast. I've always played fast. But I didn't start winning championships until we slowed down. Wanna talk about the history of the game? In the last 10 years, show me a fast team that's won. I've been on four champions. None of them were fast.
Just in case it's high-tempo: Are you still eating those club sandwiches you love so much?
No, I'm not eating club sandwiches. Now it's just salads, wraps, healthy stuff. I'm eating right.
Is this a one-and-done season, in your mind? Or can you keep it going, maybe win a few together?
On paper, we can win a lot, but that don't mean nothing. Contractually, they say this is my last season.
Have you talked to LeBron about his future and whether he'll re-sign?
No, I'll never talk to LeBron about that. It's his decision. He has to do what's best for him and his family. I've been in that situation in my career, had to make tough decisions. I understand what he's facing. You know, LeBron's his own man. He knows what he's doing.
Do you think you'll retire a Cav?
I don't know. I'll probably be one of those great players who pissed everybody off and they'll try to teach me a lesson by not retiring my number. [laughs] But I always told my father that when I retire, my name will be in that NBA Bible. Not really concerned about when and where I'll retire. When I'm done, I just want you to remember Shaquille O'Neal.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears regularly in ESPN The Magazine and occasionally on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.