As he was being poked and prodded by the Suns’ medical staff Wednesday, Shaquille O’Neal glanced up at a TV screen and pointed at the results of a nationwide fan poll gauging opinion of the Phoenix-Miami trade.
“He said, ‘Apparently, 71 percent of people in America think this was a bad deal,’ ” Suns general manager Steve Kerr said. “Then he said, ‘That makes me angry. And I play my best when I’m angry.’ ”
It will probably be a week before the 14-time All-Star gets a chance to take out his frustrations on the basketball court and prove his acquisition for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks won’t be a three-year drag on Phoenix — both on the court and to the payroll.
O’Neal did not speak with the media — his press conference comes this morning — but watched the Suns-Hornets game from a suite at US Airways Center. He was introduced to the crowd between the first and second quarter when he stood, waved to an extended standing ovation and then pointed to his bare ring finger, which has been filled four times in his 15-year career.
But a month shy of his 36th birthday and with injuries limiting him each of the last two seasons, can O’Neal make the gamble the Suns took on him pay off with a crown of their own?
O’Neal is owed $20 million both next season and in 2009-10 when he will be 38 come playoff time. For better or worse, sickness or health, the Suns are married to this move for the duration.
“The question mark was ‘Does he have any gas left in the tank?’ ” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “(Fans and media) have debated it now for 24 hours and come up with ‘no,’ and I think you’re wrong. I do find it kind of funny; first we can’t win without a big man, and once we get a big man, now we can’t win with a big man.
“I don’t think he’s going to come to Phoenix and lay an egg. He’s focused and he is ready to roll.”
Kerr said he wouldn’t have signed off on the deal without a strong vote of confidence from the Phoenix medical staff — which has had positive results from veteran players like Antonio McDyess, Grant Hill and Steve Nash.
Suns team physician Dr. Thomas Carter said he was “pleasantly shocked” at O’Neal’s physical condition when he was examined Wednesday. O’Neal weighed in at 321 pounds and measured 11 percent body fat. There was no evidence of arthritis in O’Neal’s hip and the current injury was limited to the outside of the hip — and is already well on the way to healing.
“You hear things about him having concerns, but what we saw didn’t look problematic,” Carter said.
The opportunity to obtain O’Neal popped up within the last week — just after Kerr and Suns managing partner Robert Sarver had said no major moves would be made to the team’s core. It started with a conversation between Sarver and Miami managing partner Micky Arison.
And while D’Antoni said he felt the Suns had a chance to win a title with their current roster — the core of which had won 211 regular-season games over the last four years but never reached the NBA Finals — he was all for a chance to bring “The Diesel” to Phoenix.
“He just about jumped out of his chair,” Kerr said. “He wanted it more than anyone in this organization from Day 1 it was proposed. I was the one who had to kind of slow down and walk it through.”
Kerr said he was concerned about the team’s lack of size inside and how it was exposed against possible playoff opponents in the Western Conference. He also felt the team chemistry was lacking as far back as training camp in Tucson.
“There was always an underlying tension. It just wasn’t the perfect situation,” Kerr said. “The pecking order wasn’t established in the locker room. When I played there was always a totem poll where you knew where you stood. I think that’s going to happen now.
“When I talked to Shaq about taking the guys bowling or on a paint ball trip, his eyes lit up. He’s going to take his role as a leader and mentor seriously.”
Amaré Stoudemire, who had played center under protest since the 2004-05 season, was very happy with the prospect of sliding to the power forward spot alongside one of the players he idolized.
“It’s not as much pressure on me now as far as being the center and the stopper,” he said. “Now I’m back at my natural position. He’s the best at his position and I’m the best at mine, so it’s going to be a great opportunity for us.”
Nash said he was shocked at the trade and admitted that “the jury is out” as to whether it was unwise.
“There’s a downside risk to everything,” Nash said. “That’s going to be a favorite talking point for a lot of media. But my favorite talking point is that we’ve got an incredible, huge, talented, charismatic player in our locker room now. We’re all going to try to bring out the best in him, and traditionally in history he’s made everyone around him better, too. I think the Big Aristotle is going to be fun for us.”
It will certainly ratchet up another notch the Suns-Lakers rivalry. Kerr denied the move was a direct answer to the Lakers’ acquisition of Pau Gasol from Memphis last week, but the Shaq-Kobe Bryant element just adds more fuel to the roaring fire between the two clubs.
“Maybe now I won’t be the No. 1 enemy of the Lakers (fans) when I go there,” Suns guard Raja Bell joked. “That’s OK with me.”
What do you think?
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