When the Heat announced last winter they were retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey (in a celebration to be held sometime during the 2016-17 season), it was a jaw dropping say what? moment. The way it ended with O’Neal and Pat Riley, open flesh wounds, the bridge still burning, embers still hanging in the wind, meant a jersey retirement was way off. The divorce was ugly. (Aren’t Pat Riley’s divorces always ugly. Shaq. LeBron. Wade.)
The best prediction of the jersey retirement timeline seemed to be sometime after O’Neal’s Hall of Fame induction and after the Heat went through all of the Dwyane Wade honors- so like a decade from now. Of course no one knew that Wade would leave South Beach two months before Shaq was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But no interminable waiting period. It really is going to happen and for Shaq a little bit of history. The Heat are the second franchise he won a title with that will honor his contributions with the retirement of his jersey. The Lakers retired Shaq’s jersey three years ago. The Heat will retire his jersey on December 22nd when they play the Lakers, a fitting tribute. Shaq’s first championship team playing against his second championship team. Perhaps a bit of Heat throwing shade? It was the Lakers who decided to keep Kobe and let Shaq walk. That set it all in motion for the Heat. They won a title out of it and then it got a little bit messy.
The feel good part of the story was Shaq being great for the Heat and a young Dwyane Wade soaking up everything the seven footer dished out, humor and seriousness side by side. Shaq had been the center object before and he also had played with dynamic shooting guards in Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant. So he was the perfect missing piece while it lasted. But of course. It didn’t last.
When Shaq was traded from Miami to Phoenix before the trade deadline in 2008 (Shaq was 36 years old and way out of his prime), O’Neal had a few things to say about his former team that he won a championship for.
“I love playing for this coach (Mike D’Antoni) and I love playing with these guys. We have professionals who know what to do. No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I’m actually on a team again.” (Shaquille O’Neal, Boston Globe)
Often when things go badly, they crash and burn. A Miami team with Dwyane Wade and Shaq was no exception. Losing incentivizes bad behavior.
One time, Pat Riley pulled O’Neal in the early minutes of a November game for missing a defensive assignment. It didn’t sit well with O’Neal to be humiliated in his hometown of New Jersey.
Shaq is known for jamming his past teammates/employers. He eviscerated Kobe Bryant. He criticized LeBron James, saying, “Our coach Mike Brown was a nice guy but he had to live on edge because no one was supposed to be confrontational to LeBron. Nobody wanted him to leave Cleveland so he was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do.”
And then there was this fight.
Pat Riley is New York born. He doesn’t back down, nor does he allow anyone to tell him what he is going to do. Insurgency is not what he glorifies, obedience is. The fight incident was described in O’Neal’s book, Shaq, Uncut: My Story, as a badge of honor.
“My ticket out of Miami was punched in mid-February 2008. There was a lot of tension between Pat and the players. So we’re about to start practice and Jason Williams comes in about ten seconds late. Pat being Pat, he starts swearing at him and screaming, “Get the hell out of here!”
I tell Pat we’re a team and we need to stick together, not throw guys out the gym. Pat is screaming at me and says if I don’t like it, then I should get the hell out of practice too. That’s when I said, “Why don’t you make me?”
I start taking a couple of steps towards Pat. Udonis Haslem steps in and I shove him out of the way. Then Zo tries to grab me. I threw him aside like he was a rag doll. Now, it’s me and Riley face-to-face, jaw to jaw. I’m poking him in the chest and he keeps slapping my finger away and it’s getting nasty. Noisy, too. He’s yelling, “F*** you!”, and I’m yelling back, “No, f*** you!”
Zo is trying to calm us both down and he has this kind of singsong panic in his voice. He keeps saying, “Big fella, no big fella, big fella!” I finally turn around and tell him, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hit the man. Do you think I’m crazy?”
That was the final cut of the Shaquille O’Neal cord in Miami as he was traded to the Suns. You don’t challenge Riley. You don’t threaten to kick his a** in public, with bystanders. You don’t call his bluff.
So why the jersey retirement so soon? Shaq retired in 2011. It’s just been 5 years and clearly Riley hasn’t gotten over it. Does he have amnesia? Has his brain blocked out the way it ended with Shaq?
Perception is reality. The Lakers are honoring Shaq with a statue outside of Staples Center. The Hall of Fame is including Shaq into their hallowed body. The Heat had to do something to complete the trifecta of awards for the greatest big man since Kareem Abdul-Jabaar or else Riley looks like he’s holding a grudge. This way, Riley looks like he doesn’t care about the past, a Shaq feud isn’t that important. Riley gets the last word while appearing magnanimous and forgiving.
As much as Riley may be pissed that Shaq wasn’t going to back down from him, and post-trade, Shaq repeatedly slamming the Heat, it was Shaq that helped get the Heat the title in 2006. That title gave Wade authority with his peers, allowing LeBron and Chris Bosh to want to join the Heat, which added two more titles. The Heat owe Shaquille O’Neal.
“He (Shaquille O’Neal) took us to another level as a basketball franchise while leading us to our first NBA championship. ” (Pat Riley)
photo via llananba