MIAMI - Shaquille O'Neal is planning and plotting his future. It doesn't include making many more rap albums, dumb movies or doing his own reality TV show. Another few years of basketball and O'Neal, 32, will be ready to fulfill his real dream: running for sheriff in Orlando, Fla.
"Everything for me has always fallen in place," O'Neal said before a recent exhibition game there against the Magic. "Play four more years, retire and lock all you bad guys up. Right now, it's just talk, but I'd love to have the opportunity. Who knows?"
O'Neal can't always be taken totally seriously. But for now, he will have to be satisfied as the proclaimed, if not elected, new sheriff in this town, ready to take charge of the Miami Heat and, if things go as he expects, the NBA's not-so-deep Eastern Conference.
His rather imposing presence can be felt everywhere these days.
From the "Shaq In Black" sign that adorns the front of the AmericanAirlines Arena to the largest increase in ticket sales of any team to the Heat's jump in regular-season network television appearances from one last season to the league-maximum 33 this season, O'Neal's coming to Miami is the NBA's biggest story as the season begins tonight - even though he may miss the Heat's opener tomorrow with a hamstring injury.
It started to take shape in mid-July, when team president Pat Riley dumped last season's starting frontcourt - forwards Caron Butler and Lamar Odom and center Brian Grant - as well as a future first-round draft choice and talked Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak into trading the unhappy O'Neal.
"We still had a lot of work to do with that team," Riley said one afternoon last week. "The decision was hard because it was a good young team. ... I think the important thing for the team and the city was getting, if not the most dominating player in the history of the game, one of the most dominating."
The return of O'Neal to Florida - he spent the first four years of his 12-year career in Orlando, where he still has a 64,000-square foot, $25 million home - produced the kind of frenzy usually associated here with rock concerts or wet T-shirt contests during spring break.
There was the downtown parade that drew thousands on a stifling summer afternoon, where O'Neal popped out of an 18-wheeler and playfully doused the fans with a water gun, then made the typically Shaq-like boasts of taking a stroll - in the buff - on nearby South Beach while leading the Heat to a championship.
There was also O'Neal's appearance during the MTV Video Music Awards, where a svelte figure appeared in silhouette behind a curtain and then showed off his new slimmed-down physique in person, again promising to bring an NBA title to Miami for the first time in the franchise's 16-year history.
For Miami, O'Neal's arrival is comparable to that of Don Shula's from Baltimore than three decades ago to coach the Dolphins.
"I was at Shula's first press conference, and it was huge," said ESPN's Hank Goldberg, the longtime host of a popular local radio show. "The Shaq acquisition was the biggest thing I've ever seen. Shaq is probably more popular here than J. Lo [Jennifer Lopez]."
The Heat has always been a second choice - or even a third or fourth choice - among locals. Miami has been a Dolphins town, but the team's dismal record this season and the bizarre Ricky Williams retirement have allowed sports fans to start turning their interests elsewhere.
There was also no magical run this year by the Florida Marlins, and the University of Miami's national championship hopes in football realistically ended with Saturday's loss at North Carolina.
As the Heat opens the season tomorrow night in New Jersey, all eyes are focused on this 7-foot-1 player who has more nicknames - including Big Aristotle, Shaq Fu, Shaq Daddy and Shaq Diesel - than NBA titles.
"The city's excited," said Riley, who likened this trade to those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Lakers and Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Lakers. "It's given them hope that something good is going to happen."
But Goldberg is among a handful of cynics around here who wonder if the Heat - and the Lakers for that matter - benefited from the blockbuster deal.
"I don't want to be a naysayer," Goldberg said, "but the fans here could be very disappointed. If he [O'Neal] misses 20 games, they could lose 18 of them. The Heat had a very good thing going last spring. [Coach Stan] Van Gundy was able to get them to listen."
New pieces for puzzle
There have already been ominous signs that Miami's new lineup doesn't fit Van Gundy's defensive scheme that worked so well with a smaller but more athletic team last season - especially when the Heat, after starting 0-7 and 5-15, went 17-4 down the stretch and reached the second round of the playoffs.
After a 109-103 preseason loss in Orlando last week that included a 62-point first half for the Magic, Van Gundy was furious with the lack of defensive effort by many players. O'Neal has shown during the preseason that he can still be a force inside, a farce at the foul line and a big-brother figure to young players such as Dwyane Wade and Rasual Butler.
"I think Shaq's leadership has been great, and he's tried to lead in a very positive direction," Van Gundy said.
"I think the one negative - and there's nothing that Shaq can do about this - with Shaq here there's some guys in that locker room who think it's automatically going to be easier in the amount of effort they need to put out," Van Gundy said. "That's not the case. One guy is not going to get it done."
Said O'Neal: "They just have to learn their roles and do what they do, and that's just going to take time. Hopefully by March or April, we'll be in tune. I'll be very surprised if we're in tune the first month."
O'Neal is certainly not in tune yet. Though he adhered to Riley's urging and lost 24 pounds over the summer - he weighed in last week at 327 and actually looks like he's in his best shape since his early days as a Laker - O'Neal missed three of the seven preseason games with what was called a slightly pulled hamstring. Yesterday, O'Neal sat out most of the Heat's practice. The team wasn't certain whether he could play tomorrow.
But asked about his conditioning earlier in the preseason, O'Neal smirked.
"Awful," joked O'Neal, who played in only 67 games in each of the past two seasons because of a variety of nagging injuries. "It's the worst. I'll probably average 27 [points] and 10 [rebounds] and I'll be horrible."
O'Neal said because the East is expected to have only two legitimate contenders, the defending world champion Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, it won't be that difficult "to keep pace with the Joneses." O'Neal has set one goal: Get one of the top four spots for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
"Last year, they got what, the eighth spot? The fifth spot? [Actually, the sixth spot.] They won 40 games [42-40]. Hopefully, this year we'll win more than 40 games," said O'Neal, whose teams have been an average of a little more than 14 games over .500 during his career. "Different conference, different players."
Typically, the teams he has joined have improved steadily rather than dramatically.
The Magic went from horrible (21-61) to respectable (41-41) during O'Neal's rookie year in Orlando (1992-93) before reaching the NBA Finals two seasons later. O'Neal had only a marginal impact immediately on the Lakers, who won 56 games when he joined them in 1996-97 after winning 53 the season before.
The makeup of the Heat's personnel is not that much different from Los Angeles' the past few years.
The fact that O'Neal isn't feuding with any of his teammates as he often did with Kobe Bryant is certainly in Miami's favor. Wade, 22, is a superstar in the making, and veteran guard Eddie Jones, who played with O'Neal for a little more than three seasons in Los Angeles, will get the kinds of open looks he used to when Alonzo Mourning was Miami's dominant inside player.
Having his on-court support questioned is nothing new to O'Neal, who along with Bryant, coach Phil Jackson and a revolving cast of role players, led the Lakers to three straight NBA championships and a loss to the Pistons in a five-game Finals last season.
"I've always heard that before," O'Neal said. "You talk about the so-called superstars. We've got good role players. Pat Riley and Coach Van Gundy have done a good job of bringing in people that master their roles. I won out there, and I didn't have that much help either. It's all about being together, working hard and getting it done. In fact, we have enough to get it done. It's up to us."
Riley brought in five free agents - center Michael Doleac, forward Christian Laettner and guards Wesley Person, Damon Jones and Keyon Dooling - to fill out the roster. Doleac and second-year forward Udonis Haslem should give O'Neal help inside, while Person and Jones should add to a team that finished seventh in the league in three-point shooting (35.7 percent) last season.
"Right now, we have a lot of new guys, and we're trying to learn how to play together," said Wade, who was considered on the same level with the Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony and right behind the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James among the league's rookies last season. "We're all making adjustments to each other. We have a long way to go, but it's a long season."
Wade has impressed his new teammate.
"He's real good," O'Neal said. "I didn't know he had all the stuff he had with him. I'm going to try to bring it out of him and stay on him and be on him. He's a good kid."
Only a few other Heat players have been part of the nightly circus that accompanies playing with one of the sport's superstars. Laettner, who signed here last summer after being traded twice and cut once in a span of two months, experienced that with the Washington Wizards when Michael Jordan came out of retirement.
"It'll be the same if we're a good team and winning," said Laettner, obviously forgetting the Wizards failed to reach the playoffs in Jordan's two seasons. "If there's a circus around, it's usually for a reason. Hopefully, it will be a good reason."
Van Gundy also said it will be similar in another regard: Beating the Heat will become more of a priority because of O'Neal's presence.
"I don't think there's any question," Van Gundy said. "I said to our team the other night that for everybody except Shaq on our team, they're not used to being the hunted. They've all been on teams where you sort of snuck up on people and maybe didn't get everybody's best effort every night.
"It changes now, just the mere fact of having Shaquille on your team means that you're going to have an opponent who's excited about the game and very, very focused and are going to come after you hard. That's what we're going to see every single night all year long."
And what is the rest of the NBA going to see from O'Neal?
Though not the player he was five years ago, when he became only the third player in league history to be named Most Valuable Player during the regular season, the All-Star Game and the NBA Finals, O'Neal is expected to be a little more motivated than he was last season, when he averaged a career-low 21.5 points.
"I want to end my career here," he said. "I want to play four or five years, win a couple of more [championships]. That's what it's all about. I could easily go out and get something done individually and have it be about me, me, me, me. I've been out of me, me, me since I landed here."
This town hasn't been the same since he did.
Houston at Detroit, 8 p.m., TNT
Denver at L.A. Lakers, 10:30 p.m., TNT
Inside: Team previews. Pages 4-5C