Heat re­tire O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

MI­AMI:

Shaquille O’Neal once brought in some­one to set up a makeshift jew­elry store in the Mi­ami Heat play­ers’ lounge, and of­ten could be found sur­pris­ing team ex­ec­u­tives and em­ploy­ees while naked. Some­times, he also played bas­ket­ball. For all those rea­sons, and many oth­ers, Thurs­day was a night to cel­e­brate O’Neal at the arena he called home for parts of four sea­sons. The Heat raised O’Neal’s No. 32 to the rafters, a dis­tinc­tion the team has only pre­vi­ously awarded to Alonzo Mourn­ing and Tim Har­d­away.

“This is an inside joke for all the Mi­ami peo­ple,” O’Neal said. “It’s def­i­nitely un­ex­pected.” Not from the Heat per­spec­tive, it wasn’t. Al­though it wasn’t a well-kept se­cret that O’Neal’s de­par­ture from the Heat did not come with ei­ther side par­tic­u­larly happy with and fond of the other - O’Neal thought he was being pranked when a team of­fi­cial called months ago to say this event was planned - it was al­ways Mi­ami’s in­ten­tion to pay homage to his ten­ure with the fran­chise.

“He’s a once-in-a-life­time player,” Heat Pres­i­dent Pat Ri­ley said. “There are a lot of them in the his­tory of the NBA, but he’s a once-in-a-life­time ac­qui­si­tion for us and meant so much to us.” Alex Ro­driguez was there sit­ting court­side for the big night, and so was rap­per DJ Khaled. Heat coach Erik Spoel­stra emerged from the locker room for the half­time cer­e­mony, as did for­mer

O’Neal team­mate Udo­nis Haslem. There were a slew of gifts, in­clud­ing a framed ver­sion of the jersey ban­ner that was raised, and a minia­ture 18-wheeler - like the one he ar­rived on in 2004 - driven out onto the court by O’Neal’s mother, Lu­cille. O’Neal thanked Haslem and Mourn­ing, and made sure to pay trib­ute to the fans. “I couldn’t done it with­out you,” O’Neal said.

‘Can you dig it?’

As the event was start­ing, Ri­ley dumped hun­dreds of the “15 Strong” cards that were the sig­na­ture keepsake for the 2006 Heat NBA ti­tle team over his head. “We would not have won the cham­pi­onship in 2006 with­out the ef­forts of Shaquille O’Neal,” Ri­ley said.

O’Neal had about a dozen rel­a­tives and friends with him for the half­time cel­e­bra­tion of Mi­ami’s game against the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, tak­ing a break from his game-an­a­lyst du­ties on tele­vi­sion for the fes­tiv­i­ties. The Heat gave com­mem­o­ra­tive T-shirts to all fans in at­ten­dance, and pre­sented O’Neal with a $50,000 check for his foun­da­tion.

And it ended with O’Neal of­fer­ing his fa­vorite line: “Can you dig it?” he bel­lowed twice, as the crowd screamed. O’Neal was a huge part of the team that de­liv­ered Mi­ami’s first cham­pi­onship in 2006, even though Dwyane Wade was emerg­ing as a su­per­star and long­time stars like Mourn­ing and Gary Pay­ton also had voices that res­onated deeply within the locker room at that time.

“Con­trary to what ev­ery­body thinks about his prac­ti­cal jok­ing and his telling sto­ries, he was very se­ri­ous about win­ning,” Ri­ley said. Se­ri­ous about hav­ing fun, too. O’Neal once emerged from the shower and found manag­ing gen­eral partner Micky Ari­son and ath­letic trainer Jay Sabol en­gaged in a con­ver­sa­tion. So O’Neal de­cided to stand be­hind Ari­son, fully nude, un­til some­one no­ticed. More naked O’Neal ex­ploits in­cluded the 7-foot-1, 325-pound man’s pen­chant for grab­bing peo­ple around the locker room and wrestling them to the ground.

“It never hap­pened to me,” Spoel­stra said. “Thank God.” Then there was the day that Ri­ley got a call af­ter prac­tice from some­one inside the arena, ask­ing about the per­son sell­ing jew­elry inside the play­ers’ lounge. Ri­ley went down and asked the por­ta­ble jew­eler what he was do­ing there, and he said O’Neal gave his ap­proval to set up shop. “My bad,” O’Neal said. Even­tu­ally, O’Neal de­liv­ered the jew­elry Mi­ami wanted most - the 2006 cham­pi­onship ring, the one that Ri­ley was wear­ing on Thurs­day night. And all jokes aside, O’Neal was moved by the Heat ges­ture. “It is a big honor,” O’Neal said. — AP

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