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Shaquille O’Neal and a False Dawn in Sunny Phoenix

March 3rd, 2020 · No Comments · Back in the Day, Kobe, Lakers, NBA

This is another entry in the “Back in the Day” series, where we look back at a sports event I wrote about for the newspaper. In this case, the nearly forgotten 2008 mid-season trade of Shaquille O’Neal from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns.

The idea in Phoenix was that Shaq would be the presence in the paint that would allow the Steve Nash-led, Mike D’Antoni-coached Suns — to win a first NBA championship.

As it turned out, in 33 games that season in Phoenix, Shaq put up the sort of numbers one would associate with a big man on the back side of his career, scoring 12.9 points and taking 10.9 rebounds per game for a high-speed team that went out in the first round of the loaded Western Conference playoffs.

However, when I saw him in Phoenix in his Suns debut, February 20, 2008, versus the visiting Lakers, he looked like a man on a mission — despite the Lakers winning 130-124.

Now, let’s go back to that winter night from 12 years ago.

By Paul Oberjuerge

PHOENIX — If that version of Shaquille O’Neal is the one the Phoenix Suns traded for … mark them down as an even more competitive force in the brutally tough Western Conference.

For one night, at least, The Big Load wasn’t the old, sore, broken-down lug we saw playing out the string (and that $100 million contract) while the Miami Heat melted down.

He looked more like the guy who helped carry the Lakers to three NBA championships, early in this decade, and the Heat to their first title, in 2006. 

This Valley of the Sun version of The Big Aristotle played harder. With the intensity of a man with something to prove.

He was a maniac. A berserker. And that was something new, and a little scary.

He ran the court. He changed shots. He had fans on their feet.

He threw his 325 pounds to the floor while chasing loose balls — including one prodigious dive that toppled referee David Guthrie and nearly wiped out a line of court-side photographers.

O’Neal scored 15 points, took nine rebounds and had three assists, which is nothing special until we recall it was his first game with the Suns, and his first game with anybody since January 21.

He played nearly 29 minutes, or about 10 more than most of us thought he could survive, and he was never seen to take oxygen.

The fact that the Lakers won the game, 130-124, seemed almost irrelevant.

If the Suns have been reinforced by an O’Neal who can and will play that hard all the time … the Western Conference is now officially the Murderers’ Row of professional sports.

“I’ve only been here five days,” O’Neal said after the game. “When we get used to each other we’ll be the most dangerous team ever created.”

That exclamation might be a bit premature, but those soft-in-the-middle Phoenix Suns have just dropped a concrete block into the middle of their game, and they look only more formidable.

As if the Western Conference needed that. It is the conference of the champion Spurs, the resurgent Lakers, the under-the-radar Utah Jazz, the Houston Rockets, the best-in-the-west New Orleans Pelicans, the scrappy Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets … Yikes.

“There’s a lot of things we can get better at,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But I’m really encouraged by a lot of what went on.”

And Shaq’s where’d-that-come-from performance? “After 15 years we’re not surprised by anything he can do when he puts his mind to it,” D’Antoni said. “He’s just incredible. He seemed to get stronger as the game went on. I thought he’d run out of steam. He really didn’t.

“This is going to be fun.”

O’Neal’s arrival certainly energized Phoenix fans. Local reporters said the crowd on Wednesday demonstrated “the most energy in this building all season.”

So even with the Lakers winning, and moving into a tie with the Suns atop the Pacific Division, the Suns showed the possibility of being better than the team that won 61 games last season. 

Phoenix could be a handful. A fistful, actually, with something resembling The Diesel in the paint. 

This conference could end up being even more intense and interesting. Imagine Shaquille and the Suns and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on the same side of the West playoffs bracket. If they face off, it will be the the league’s biggest TV ratings bonanza this side of a Celtics-Lakers NBA Final.

O’Neal may not be able to keep up this pace for more than this one high-visibility game with the Lakers, but that isn’t how The Big Energizer was talking.

“I want to show Suns fans what kind of player they have in Shaquille O’Neal,” he said. 

“I need to prove something to myself. This is the final chapter of my book.

“The first three are suspenseful, drama-full. Now I get to play with the great Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire …

“So when I sit down to write the final chapter I want five or six championships in my book. Otherwise, I’ll be a bitter old man.”


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