Perhaps the best way to describe the Cavaliers' biggest acquisition last summer is to say it might as well have come encased with a sign that read, IN CASE OF DWIGHT HOWARD, BREAK GLASS. And there behind the pane was an enormous, smirking bald man.
Sure, the Cavs claim they traded for Shaquille O'Neal to help throughout the season—"Really, it wasn't just for Dwight," coach Mike Brown says with admirable conviction—but everyone knows this isn't true. After the Magic center spent last spring slam-dancing through LeBron James & Co. during a 4--2 upset in the Eastern Conference finals, Cleveland had to obtain a post defender of significant force. In O'Neal the Cavs found the closest thing to a human levee. And so for the first time in his 18-year NBA career Shaq was cast as a pure role player, brought in to, in his words, "win a ring for the King" while serving as Kryptonite for the 6' 11", 240-pound Howard, the league's new Man of Steel. To say Shaq has taken this new role seriously would be an understatement.
You stare at the plastic bottle. That couldn't be ... could it? "Yup, V8," O'Neal says, his voice a low rumble.
Really? V8? This is not the drink of the Baddest Man on the Planet, an icon with championships to win and nightclubs to plunder and a world to cradle in his wrinkled brown palms. Yet here he is, a man who used to dine on 48-ounce steaks and wash them down with 24-ounce steaks, cradling this tiny vessel of vegetable pulp. O'Neal is splayed on a leather couch in the team's practice facility on an off day during Cleveland's second-round series against the Celtics (which was 2--2 after Boston's 97--87 win on Sunday). And what is this? Now Shaq is talking about how he orders in organic meals, how he's cut out soda and white bread and most red meat, how while rehabbing a thumb injury he spent hours on the treadmill and in the pool (activities he heretofore savored about as much as a pressure free throw), how he stays home most nights to rest, how he's lost 20 pounds and feels really good about it. And damn if he doesn't look relatively slim, his stomach practically a plane beneath his T-shirt, which he pairs most days with baggy sweatpants and perhaps the largest pair of shower sandals ever manufactured. "I'm telling you," says Cleveland G.M. Danny Ferry, "he has worked his butt off."
Worked his butt off? My goodness, who is this? What happened to the celebrity Shaq, who in his L.A. days was making movies and rap albums while living it up in a preposterous mansion with giant Superman logos on the front doors? Then there was Miami, glorious Miami, with its beaches and senoritas and hazy, gauzy nights. "I never got any rest in Miami," O'Neal says nostalgically. "I still don't know how we won that championship [in 2006]. F------ partied every night in Miami."
But now? Now the 38-year-old O'Neal lives in Richfield, Ohio, a town of 3,117 halfway between Cleveland and Akron in which the most common occupation is construction and the best restaurant is known for its early-bird dinners. Once the city was home to the Richfield Coliseum, where the Cavs and Zeppelin played, but that arena was demolished in 1999. Hell, Shaq can't even ride his tricked-out three-wheel motorcycle around Richfield, as he did last season while playing for the Suns, when he would startle many a bleary-eyed suburbanite by roaring off the line at Scottsdale, Ariz., stop signs. "Danny [Ferry] told me that if I ride and crash it, my contract is void," O'Neal says, "so I sold it."
While it is nearly impossible for a 7'1", 350-pound man to disappear, that's essentially what O'Neal has tried to do for the last nine months in Cleveland, where he lobbied Phoenix to trade him last spring. Upon arriving in the fall he held a raucous welcome party at the Barley House, an Irish bar in downtown Cleveland—"no bodyguards, no entourage, just to show the people in the city I'm a nice guy," he says—and then promptly became, well, boring. For years Shaq doled out proclamations meant to provoke, disrupt and self-promote. The Sacramento Queens. Chris Bosh is the RuPaul of big men. Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes. But this season he has exited through side doors, toned down his tweets and stayed at all times in the shadow of James. Last month O'Neal even declined an interview with Esquire. "I'm finally one of the others," he explains. "For 16 years it was about me. Now it's all about him."
There is one problem, though. After all these years of effortless dominance, no quantity of veggie smoothies or ab crunches or afternoon naps with chamomile oxidizers can change the fact that Shaq is no longer the force he once was. And though Cleveland doesn't need the old Shaq, it does need a reasonable facsimile. The Cavs may depend on James as much as any team has ever depended upon its star, but it is upon O'Neal's balky knees and tired shoulders that their title prospects—already in peril against a surprisingly resilient Celtics team—may well hinge. The question then is, Does he still have it?
The man in the upper deck at Quicken Loans Arena is livid. He cannot understand Mike Brown's decision in this, the first game of the Celtics series. "Why the hell is Shaq in?" the man is shouting, gesturing wildly with both hands, as if trying to grab the Cleveland coach from afar and shake some sense into him. "He is killing us."
From his office the Western Conference G.M. watches on TV and agrees. "They're starting him," he says. "But you know Mike can't wait to get Andy [Varejao] in the game."