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AS YOU MIGHT expect, there have been some changes on the Phoenix Suns since the hulking figure of Shaquille O'Neal first darkened the doorway of US Airways Center in early February, the key acquisition in a trade with the Miami Heat that many NBA observers still find nothing short of mind-boggling. ¶ The Suns' stat team now finds itself figuring out a whole new batch of math, especially RAS. (That's Record After Shaq, which stood at 7--6 through Sunday, though the last four of those wins have come consecutively.) Point guard Steve Nash, Phoenix's franchise player and go-to interview target, finds the area around his corner locker less crowded after games, particularly when the Big Soliloquizer hits his comedic stride. Forward-center Amaré Stoudemire, who as a youngster in the Orlando area idolized O'Neal, finds himself the frequent recipient of on-court and off-court advice from Shaq, which O'Neal classifies as "secret-society talk." Coach Mike D'Antoni finds that as he looks at film, he occasionally thinks about a fundamental stratagem not previously in his game plans: halting the offensive flow and dumping the ball inside to O'Neal.
But it is the arms and shoulders of athletic trainer Aaron Nelson that have had to deal with the most substantial change. Every day Nelson spends an hour or so kneading and manipulating O'Neal's massive body, trying to coax an extra tenth of an inch of flexibility out of Shaq's left hip, trying to incrementally increase the dorsiflexion in his right ankle. Whether prepractice or pregame, Nelson's routine is the same: He starts by working on 6'8", 225-pound forward Grant Hill; moves on to the 6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire; takes a deep breath and attacks the 7'1", 321-pound shell of Shaq; then finishes with the 6'3", 178-pound Nash. "Going from Grant to Amaré is a contrast," says Nelson, "but going from Shaq to Steve is like working with two different species."
This is the daily grind for the 36-year-old Shaq: enduring diabolic pain on a training table ("Once in a while he threatens to punch me," Nelson says. "I have to hope that never happens"), getting his flexibility measured by something called a goniometer, and trying to whip into shape a body so misaligned that he hadn't played for Miami for a month before the trade. He came to Phoenix both for the chance to earn a fifth ring and because he can fill a secondary role—witness last Thursday's 123--115 victory over the visiting Golden State Warriors, in which he played just 14 minutes.
"Even though I've been the most dominant player for a while," Shaq said last week after a practice session, "there comes a time when you gotta be realistic. Nobody has ever dominated the league at 36, and I'm not gonna be the first. Everybody, when he gets older, has to sacrifice a part of his game and realize he's lost part of his physical ability. I'm O.K. with that."
Well, he was never O.K. with it before. Basketball obituaries about Shaq have been written for the last five years, and he has always scoffed at them, clinging to the notion that he sets the on-court agenda. No longer. "I'm 36, and Amaré's 25," says Shaq. "It would be dumb of me to take 30 shots and turn him into a role player. Let Amaré go off, and I'll be the role player."
So there it is: role player. His is a career writ large—in size, in deed and in his own telling—and Shaq's acceptance of his hoops mortality is nothing less than astonishing. He doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize for this or a bump in his $20 million salary or pardons for the times when he did not work hard enough to rehab an injury or recover from surgery (right toe in 2002, left knee in '06). But it's always fascinating to watch someone try to reinvent himself, particularly someone as fascinating as O'Neal. The trade ended a half year of hell in Miami, what with his physical discomfort and the well-publicized breakup of his marriage. Shaunie and five of their six children (they have four together and one each from previous relationships) visited him in Phoenix last week, and while Shaq wouldn't get into specifics, he seemed hopeful that his change of address might help mend his relationships as well as his body.
"Of course it was a very tough time for me personally in Miami," he says. "[The Heat] tried to use everything as an excuse. They couldn't figure out what the pain was, so it had to be something with me. 'Oh, he's too old.' 'He's getting divorced.' 'He doesn't want to play.' It was none of those things. [The Suns are] taking care of me here; I'm feeling better every day; and everybody's going to see they were wrong about me."
Still, despite the diminished expectations for his game (at week's end he was averaging 10.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.50 blocks in 27.5 minutes with Phoenix), he has set himself up for ridicule should the Suns, Western Conference finalists for the last two seasons, set prematurely this spring.
THE FEB. 6 trade in which Phoenix sent four-time All-Star forward Shawn Marion and backup point guard Marcus Banks to Miami for O'Neal remains so baffling to so many that its genesis bears reexamination. To be clear: Fast-break guru D'Antoni was 100% behind the deal, even though he gave up a greyhound (Marion) for a mastodon. Things change, people change. Everybody was shocked when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and went into Maggie's Farm instead of Blowin' in the Wind, but it happened. Dylan got jeered for his efforts, just as D'Antoni, credited with bringing a more entertaining, up-tempo style of play back to the NBA, has heard catcalls at home since O'Neal's arrival.
"We thought there was a chance we would lose the championship [without making the trade], based on our inability to get rebounds, giving up second-chance points and not having a dominant big guy in there defensively," says D'Antoni. "That's what I wanted to address with Shaq, and if people don't believe me, there's nothing I can do."