MIAMI (CBSLA.com/AP) — Shaquille O’Neal once brought in someone to set up a makeshift jewelry store in the Miami Heat players’ lounge, and often could be found surprising team executives and employees while naked.
Sometimes, he also played basketball.
For all those reasons, and many others, Thursday was a night to celebrate O’Neal at the arena he called home for parts of four seasons. The Heat raised O’Neal’s No. 32 to the rafters during halftime against the Los Angeles Lakers, a distinction the team has only previously awarded to Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.
“This is an inside joke for all the Miami people,” O’Neal said. “It’s definitely unexpected.”
Not from the Heat perspective, it wasn’t. Although it wasn’t a well-kept secret that O’Neal’s departure from the Heat did not come with either side particularly happy with and fond of the other — O’Neal thought he was being pranked when a team official called months ago to say this event was planned — it was always Miami’s intention to pay homage to his tenure with the franchise.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “There are a lot of them in the history of the NBA, but he’s a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition for us and meant so much to us.”
The retirement ceremony came one day after the Lakers announced that a bronze statue of O’Neal would be unveiled March 24 outside Staples Center. The nine-foot-tall, 1,200-pound statue will be suspended 10 feet above the ground in Star Plaza and connected to Staples Center.
The statue was created by the same artists — Julie Rotblatt Amrany and Omri Amrany — who also created the statues of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chick Hearn, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Luc Robitaille and Jerry West in Star Plaza.
Alex Rodriguez was there sitting courtside for the big night, and so was rapper DJ Khaled. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra emerged from the locker room for the halftime ceremony, as did former O’Neal teammate Udonis Haslem. There were a slew of gifts, including a framed version of the jersey banner that was raised, and a miniature 18-wheeler — like the one he arrived on in 2004 — driven out onto the court by O’Neal’s mother, Lucille.
“We would not have won the championship in 2006 without the efforts of Shaquille O’Neal,” Riley said.
O’Neal had about a dozen relatives and friends with him for the halftime celebration of Miami’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, taking a break from his game-analyst duties on television for the festivities. The Heat gave commemorative T-shirts to all fans in attendance, and presented O’Neal with a $50,000 check for his foundation.
And it ended with O’Neal offering his favorite line: “Can you dig it?” he bellowed twice, as the crowd screamed.
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