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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Can Shaq make Cavaliers the Next Big Thing?

Shaquille O'Neal, 37 and well past his prime, is seen in Cleveland as the missing ingredient who can help LeBron James take the team to its first NBA title. If it doesn't happen, both could be gone.

October 27, 2009|MARK HEISLER

CLEVELAND — What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?

Shaquille O'Neal has been many big things (Aristotle, Pythagorean Theorem, Cactus) in many places since 1992 when he arrived in Orlando wearing mouse ears. Of course, before this none of the places ever got snow, to say nothing of sleet and freezing rain.

Now, the Big Rust Belt?

"I'm just here," O'Neal said Monday, still trying out motifs. "So far, everyone likes the Big Witness Protection Program."

He's actually a one-man touring company, the 21st century's answer to vaudeville, even if the fun quotient dropped sharply in recent stops.

When the good times ran out in Miami, where he won a fourth NBA title to go with his three as a Laker, he was unceremoniously sent to Phoenix, where he fit as easily with the Suns as the jockey he played in a commercial, whose horse looked like a cocker spaniel under him.

He fits better here as linchpin in the Cavaliers' drive to win a title and keep LeBron James, in whichever order you prefer.

Although failure might not mean James is gone and O'Neal's career is over (The Big Sleep?), James, 24, and O'Neal, 37, will be free agents next summer.

The Cavaliers have always hated talk about James' free agency, not that they ever have a choice, as in last fall's trip to New York, where Knicks fans and the media treated an amused LeBron as a Knick-in-waiting.

In Cleveland, James' future here could be the No. 1 idea binding the community.

In the heart of an economic slide decades old, local pride fastens ever more fervently on local heroes who deign to stay, and it seems as if hearts are made to be broken. This is a city that lost an entire NFL team, after buying every seat it sold for years.

James is the one they waited for, from nearby Akron, as big as superstars get, and, best of all, not looking to big-time it out of here.

Now starting his seventh season, James has made it clear he prefers to stay. Nevertheless, he also chose a shorter extension with fewer dollars to become a free agent next summer, just in case.

Nike has been criticized for the religious overtones in its downtown "We Are All Witnesses" poster with James, head back and arms outstretched. The witnesses themselves aren't complaining.

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The Big Survivor

There were a lot of things O'Neal thought he might be doing 10 years ago, but this wasn't one of them.

Forget where he is, he didn't expect to be playing at 37, much less hoping to show enough to get a new contract.

"When did I get my first title, at 28?" O'Neal said. "After I won the first one [2000 with the Lakers], no. After the second one [2001 with the Lakers], no. After the third one [2002 with the Lakers], no.

"After the fourth one [2006 with Miami], yes."

A fifth title would put O'Neal ahead of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, in whatever order you please, but playing into his late 30s meant exposing himself to indignities he also hadn't imagined.

At 32, the Lakers traded him. At 35, with Dwyane Wade lost, the bottom falling out and Shaq looking like an Orca in sneakers, the Heat sent him to Phoenix.

Even while he fit awkwardly with the Suns, their cutting-edge medical staff got him over nagging injuries and in better shape than he had been in his 30s.

Last season's numbers, 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds, were his best in three years, got him back to the All-Star game to steal one last show, break-dancing with the JabbaWockeez.

Unfortunately, he also led the Suns, who averaged 58 wins the previous four seasons, out of the playoffs. That left owner Bob Sarver as eager to dump O'Neal and his $20-million salary as Shaq was to leave.

Nevertheless, they'll never forget him in Phoenix, either.

Even in the twilight of the Suns' fade, O'Neal answered the Cavaliers' new pregame pantomimes, choreographing routines like the one in which he was a bowler knocking down Phoenix teammates for pins, with one last pin/teammate wobbling around before tipping over.

In the all-timer, Shaq assumed Superman's flying position with his arms out like wings, and had teammates carry him onto the court.

"They only had three or four," said James, unimpressed. "We had way too much. We had the baseball one where we were the Yankees. We had the rock 'n' roll one. We had the football pose where we had won the national championship where we gave the thumbs up."

James' personality is one of the world's better-kept secrets, but off the court he's as playful as O'Neal, which is saying something.

So, whatever happens, it should be memorable.

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Witnesses once more, at least

No, this isn't Hollywood or South Beach or Scottsdale.

When the Lakers were trying to trade O'Neal in 2004, Indiana offered them Jermaine O'Neal. Shaq nixed that one, naming Dallas as the northernmost city he would go in the Sun Belt.

Now that he's here, O'Neal was welcomed with what the Akron Beacon-Journal called a "big bash," with a deck under the headline proclaiming:

"Kosar, Pavlik among celebs at party"

That's boxer Kelly Pavlik, if you wondered.

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