Shaq jumps back onto the court after a dive into the crowd during Sunday afternoon’s win over the Spurs. (NBAE Photos)
My response was always an honest one. I said I didn’t know whether or not the trade was going to alter our style, but I guaranteed the season was about to be a lot more fun.
The Diesel has since proven me right, bringing an energy to the Valley words just can’t describe. Since his arrival it isn’t just the contests against the Spurs or the Lakers which fans are anticipating, it’s each and every game. But that’s what happens when you’ve got a guy like O’Neal always providing the unexpected.
Before the match-up against the Golden State Warriors, FSN Arizona broadcaster Gary Bender and I talked to Mike D’Antoni in his office about O’Neal – specifically the play against the Spurs which saw him diving into the second row of Section 113. Bender suggested that could be the kind of play that turns around a season and the coach in no way dismissed the possibility.
D’Antoni broke his gaze from the Cavaliers/Wizards game on TV and said, “You know, it really could be.”
Later, KTAR’s Kevin Ray stopped in to discuss the play against Memphis where Shaq nearly repeated Sunday’s dive – this time into the Suns’ bench. While chasing down a loose ball towards the home team’s bench, the Suns reserves and coaches jumped out of their seats, expecting the 7-1, 320-pounder to come crashing through. This time, however, Shaq managed to put on the brakes and laughed at his sprawled out teammates.
“We all watched the replays of what happened on Sunday a few times so I wasn’t surprised to see their reaction,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know what Linton Johnson was doing though. He was wrapping up a 10-day contract. If I were him I’d have taken the hit and spent the rest of the season collecting my checks.”
For years the Suns have been the most fun team in the league to watch, but now they have also become the most fun to talk about. When you think about it, the comedic moment during the Grizzlies game was actually just a play that never happened. Yet here we are two days later still talking about it. But that’s the kind of excitement O’Neal has brought with him from Miami and I don’t think things here could be any better.
Perhaps I’m a bit biased, having followed O’Neal’s career since he first came into the league. I finally had my chance to speak to the four-time NBA Champion earlier this week following a Suns’ practice. I needed to film O’Neal for a quick Suns.com video (look for that soon) and to be honest, I was a little nervous. I mean here was a guy – along with Reggie Miller, Grant Hill and Charles Barkley – I consider a founding father in my history as a basketball fan. Those players are why I started following professional basketball to begin with. In fact, yesterday I stumbled across a photo of me at the 1995 NBA Jam Session wearing a Suns t-shirt while posing with an O’Neal cardboard cutout. Having gone from 15-year-old Suns fan to 27-year-old Suns employee, I can now say the real thing is much more imposing.
As I approached the Diesel, I kept repeating in my head how great a guy everybody in the organization says he is but still I couldn’t seem to relax. I introduced myself, told him I was with the Web site and I just needed a second of his time. It was then I realized I was actually stepping on O’Neal’s shoe. Not enough for it to be really noticeable, but I could feel his shoe just under mine nonetheless. I thought to myself, “How in the world am I stepping on this man’s shoe if I’m standing five feet away from him?” and removed it as smoothly as possible.
Just like everybody had told me, O’Neal was great and meeting him definitely met my expectations. Even better for the team, however, is that he’s also exceeding expectations on the court. Pitching in 18 rebounds against the Denver Nuggets on March 5, Shaq followed that performance up with a 20-point game against the Jazz and a 16-rebound contest against the Spurs.
I honestly feel, however, with him continuing to get healthier and more comfortable, the best is yet to come. There were two major things taking place on the court for O’Neal and the Suns those first few games following the trade. For starters, the team had to learn how to play with a guy who’s among the most dominant big men of all time. At the same time, O’Neal had to play in an offense which ran through its point guard rather than him.
With their third-straight win coming against the Warriors, it appears the message is loud and clear: For the Suns, the learning period is slowly coming to an end. The timing couldn’t be better as the playoff positioning in the Western Conference is as tight as ever. In just a week’s time a team can go from hosting an opening-round series to being out of the playoffs completely. But while the race in the Western Conference may be no laughing matter, I’m still confident no fans are going to have more fun closing out the 2007-08 campaign than those right here in the Valley. Enjoy.