SHAQ: Great Feast for The East

The telephone connection was lousy, with static drowning out Shaquille O’Neal’s voice.

Still, the message came through clearly enough: He expects to win with the Miami Heat. The Heat and Lakers finalized one of the most landscape-altering trades in NBA history with O’Neal going to Miami in exchange for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick.

“I wanted to go to another contender, and Miami is definitely another contender,” O’Neal said. “We’re just going to grow together.”

Grow? At 7-foot-1 and 340 pounds, O’Neal has long been the most formidable force in the game. Even in Los Angeles, a city of celebrities, he was a towering presence while leading the team to three NBA titles during his eight seasons there.

“It’s certainly a disappointing day in a lot of ways in Los Angeles. I can’t deny that,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “He’s had an impact in so many ways on the franchise and the city of Los Angeles.”

“We feel that we have traded for the best player in the NBA,” Heat president Pat Riley said.
NBA attorneys approved it hours after the league’s two-week moratorium on player movement ended.

O’Neal immediately transforms a franchise that has reached the conference finals only once in its 16-year history into a potential title contender. The Heat won one playoff series in the past four years and went 42-40 last season.

“I never imagined that we would acquire Shaquille O’Neal,” guard Eddie Jones said. “It’s once-in-a-lifetime trying to get a player like this guy. It’s an unbelievable, unbelievable move.”

At 32, O’Neal is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 21.5 points. He has missed 15 games each of the past three seasons with foot and leg injuries, but he’s an 11-time All-Star with career averages of 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks moving to a conference where there’s a dearth of dominating centers.

“I’ve always said that wherever he is, that’s where the balance of power is,” Indiana Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said.

The trade marks a return to Florida for O’Neal, who began his NBA career in 1992 with Orlando and still has a home there. He led the Magic to the finals in 1995, signed with the Lakers as a free agent in 1996 and helped them win three NBA titles.

“You can’t replace a Shaquille O’Neal, period,” Kupchak said. “That’s not our intention. This move, as bold as it was, was necessary.”

Days after Los Angeles lost this year’s championship series to Detroit, O’Neal demanded to be traded, weary of feuding with Kobe Bryant and feeling disrespected by owner Jerry Buss.

He’s under contract for $27.7 million this coming season and $30.6 million in 2005-06. Riley said he expects to negotiate an extension, and O’Neal said he anticipates playing another five or six years.

“We feel like Shaquille is going to be a part of this organization for a long time,” Riley said.

For the Lakers, the most significant acquisition in the deal is the versatile Odom, coming off the best season in his five-year NBA career. He and Butler were considered cornerstones in the Heat’s recent rebuilding effort, while Grant is a 10-year veteran.

“It’s a bold move to get younger and change our style of play,” Kupchak said.

With the departure of three starters, Riley will build his team around O’Neal, Olympian Dwyane Wade and Jones, Miami’s leading scorer each of the last four seasons. The Heat will now shop for help at both forward positions and backup point guard, and free agents will likely consider Miami a more appealing option with the addition of O’Neal.

“Everybody wants to be here now,” said Jones, who played with O’Neal in Los Angeles from 1996 to 1998. Each player involved in the trade must pass a physical before joining his new team. O’Neal’s first appearance in South Florida is expected to be Tuesday, the Heat said.

He instantly becomes Miami’s highest-profile athlete, and Heat ticket sales have been brisk this week. “Over at the business office of the AmericanAirlines Arena, it’s like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right now,” Riley said. “It’s absolutely a frenzy.”

O’Neal is moving from one city enthralled by celebrities to another. But there are a lot more of them in Los Angeles than in Miami, and O’Neal is likely to become the biggest thing on South Beach. “There’s a lot of excitement going around in the city,” Heat guard Rasual Butler said. “They call Shaquille O’Neal `Big Daddy’ for a reason — because everything he does is big. And it’s big news that he’s coming here.”

Through the static on the telephone line, O’Neal agreed. Said Shaq: “I look forward to making Miami a media Mecca.”

Copyright 2004 Associated Press.

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