As much as anyone, O'Neal understands that LeBron's fame will soon ring hollow if he doesn't earn a championship. In the early years of his career with the Magic, before joining Bryant in Los Angeles and eventually winning his first title in 2000, Shaq had been dismissed as a one-dimensional dunker, all the while making movies and rap records and becoming a pop icon. In those days he was in the same celebrity circle as Michael Jackson, whose death last week weighed heavily on O'Neal.
"I had a lot of history with him," Shaq said. "Fifteen years I knew him. He used to stay in my house when he would come to Orlando, and nobody was there. We used to go to the Neverland ranch; my kids would go up there. His house was a real damn beauty—this guy had lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, cougars. When you went there, it was like you'd get to go to a carnival. He'd invite us to go and watch movies in the theater in his house. He was real generous with me, a really nice guy."
The talk back turned to O'Neal's new friend. Shaq accepts that he'll most likely serve as James's sidekick for one season only, that next summer the Cavs will exploit the cap space created by his expiring $21 million salary to recruit a free agent such as Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh. "I don't think I'm going to buy a house in Cleveland," O'Neal said. "The economy is down. I already got a big mansion in Orlando, and I had my mansion in Miami that I just sold. So I'll probably just rent a condo or apartment."
Imagine waking up one morning in suburban Cleveland to find Shaq moving into the three-bedroom unit next door. Enjoy the year, Cavs fans: You're surely in for a wild ride.
Of the inevitable expectations this team will have to contend with, Shaq says, "LeBron is such a great player that he's always had a bull's-eye on his back, and now, with the addition of me, it's going to be even bigger. I wouldn't call it pressure, but guys are going to be coming for us. But that's O.K. because I'm coming too."
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