... They've been
spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They've been wasting most their time
Glorifying days long gone behind....
O'Neal is not like
the men who anchored Riley's championship teams in Los Angeles, or the gritty
squads in New York and Miami. Though he responded dramatically to Riley's
February demand to lose weight--dropping, for the first time since 1993, to a
svelte 322 pounds--there's a part of O'Neal that refuses to see basketball as
war or a statement of manhood. O'Neal likes parties where he can dress up like
his favorite movie character, Scarface, and with film roles and a gig as a U.S.
deputy marshal, his life comes off like a kid's idea of adulthood, all fun and
games. That lightness makes him easily the NBA's most engaging player, but his
casual attitude toward the regular season seemed infectious; often the Heat
performed as if playoff-level basketball was just a matter of flipping a
switch. "I know when to get mean," O'Neal promised in March. "I
don't like to get mean too early. It's coming."
And make no
mistake: Though this has been his least productive season, O'Neal remains
Miami's dominant personality. He says he has never been happier, and one reason
is that the low-key Wade has no interest in being the alpha dog. The tone was
set on Miami's first day of open gym last season, when Wade tried to dunk over
O'Neal. ("I had to," Wade says.) O'Neal slammed him to the floor and
told Wade never to try it again. He hasn't challenged Shaq since. "Kobe is
Kobe; he be who he be," says the Heat's Gary Payton, who played in L.A.
with O'Neal. "Dwyane wants everybody to be good--and he just plays his ass
begrudge Wade's success, a change from his earlier partnerships with Penny
Hardaway and Bryant. "When I was coming up with those other guys, it was
all about me," O'Neal says. "Young Shaq and young Penny: Young Shaq got
to be in control. Medium Shaq and young Kobe: Medium Shaq got to be in control.
But old Shaq and nice, humble guy? I'm not going to be stopping him. It's like
The Godfather: Penny Hardaway was like Fredo. Kobe was like Sonny: He wanted to
be the man so bad. And Dwyane is like Michael, and the time has come to say,
I'm going to let you do what you do. I've got to. I'm slowing down."
Who knows how much
a role that decline played in the signals Riley began sending last summer?
Though he walked away in 2003 after the two worst seasons of his coaching
career ("It's been nothing here but failure," he said at the time.
"Everything I get credit for I did 14 years ago"), Riley had often
mentioned in Heat circles that he might coach again, and friends such as
Memphis G.M. Jerry West pushed him to get back on the sideline. "I told him
two or three times: 'I think you're crazy for not coaching,'" West says.
"He's too good."
In June 2005 Riley
told reporters that "I may take a little bit more of an active
participation" in the team, sparking a frenzy of speculation. Van Gundy,
who had done a superb job with the seventh-place team Riley handed him just
four days before the 2003-04 season, had no choice but to think he'd been put
It was all
uncharacteristically clumsy, and Riley's next flurry of moves were equally
confounding. In the next two months Riley made Miami the pivot point in a
five-team, 13-player trade. Gone were Van Gundy favorite Eddie Jones,
sharpshooter Damon Jones, Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler. Replacing them were
Payton, Williams, Walker and James Posey. It seemed like Riley was loading up
on big names--Showtime Redux?--for a quick-fix run before O'Neal ran down for
All that, not to
mention O'Neal's convenient return to the starting lineup for Riley's first
game back, leads many to view Van Gundy's resignation as window-dressing. And
the Heat's policy of forbidding Van Gundy, who is under contract until June
2008, from speaking publicly--he wasn't allowed to speak to SI, and a request
by TNT to use him on playoff broadcasts was also rejected--only feeds a
leaguewide image of Riley as paranoid. Yet the truth about Van Gundy's
departure is more subtle. There are those close to Van Gundy who say Riley's
actions created working conditions that made it easier for him to leave; Van
Gundy never could dismiss the thought that his boss was eyeing his job. At the
same time, the 46-year-old Van Gundy desperately missed his four kids and wife
Kim, and the endless travel proved less appealing than going to his son's
baseball games and making runs to The Home Depot.
On Dec. 1 Riley
was walking across the Heat's practice floor with Louie Dampier, his roommate
for four years at Kentucky and a teammate on the famous Rupp's Runts who lost
to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA title game.
ever get back into it?" Dampier asked.