Since Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement from the NBA June 1, several pundits have debated whether the Miami Heat should retire O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey. Riley said that he loves O’Neal dearly today, and the Heat even played a tribute to one of the best centers in NBA history during a timeout of Game 2 of the NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers plan to lift The Big Aristotle’s No. 34 in the rafters, but should Pat Riley do the same?
Shaq started off his career in Miami very well, coming in with a motivated attitude to make good on his promise to Heat fans to win a championship. He averaged 22.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 60.1 percent from the field in 2004-05. Shaq even played 73 games during that season, pretty good for a player who has suffered a multitude of injuries during his 19-year NBA career. Moreover, he deferred to budding star Dwyane Wade, saying at his introductory press conference that the team belonged to Wade. He finished second in MVP voting to Steve Nash, but a deep thigh bruise limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. The Heat bowed out in seven games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Injuries derailed O’Neal’s next season with the Heat, only playing in 59 games that year. He still proved to be a solid co-star to Wade, with averages of 20 points and 9.2 boards per game. Shaq had some good production in the playoffs, providing some standout games against the Chicago Bulls in the first round and the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals to help lead the Heat to the 2006 NBA Finals.
Although he averaged just 13 points and eight boards in the Finals, Shaq’s mere presence helped Wade dominate the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals. But then Shaq became Shaq, blaming those around him on his way out.
O’Neal was injured for more than half of the Heat’s dreary 2006-07 season, but his last half-season in Miami revealed his true colors. He was upset when the Heat fell in the standings, blaming Riley for a lack of adequate personnel. During one confrontation in practice, Shaq and Riley exchanged heated words before Alonzo Mourning separated the two. Upon his arrival in Phoenix, O’Neal said, "No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I’m actually on a team again."
After missing several games with a hip injury with the Heat, Shaq dove into stands in his first season as a Sun. The Miami Herald’s Israel Gutierrez said that Miami’s training staff brought in machines that cost thousands of dollars to help O’Neal recover. But no, Shaq quit on the team, essentially forced a trade to the Suns and subsequently blamed the Heat training staff for his injuries. He derisively called Wade “Wonder Boy,” burning bridges with several people involved with the organization.
At 35 years old, Shaq was on the tail-end of his career. He wanted to win another championship, and Riley was about to move toward the summer of 2010 to rebuild his team. I don’t mind the fact that Shaq wanted to leave, but he could have done so gracefully.
Among former Miami players, the Heat have retired Alonzo Mourning’s No. 33 and Tim Hardaway’s No. 10 (the Heat retired Michael Jordan’s number and honored Dan Marino’s No. 13. Mike Miller currently uses that number). Both Mourning and Hardaway spent more time with the Heat and did not come anywhere close to the scorched earth O’Neal left when he departed from Miami.
A wise man once told me, “Be good to people on your way up because you may need them on your way down.” Perhaps Shaq should have listened to that adage, and he would have earned the chance to have his jersey retired. But because of the way he left, Riley would have to overlook a lot of what Shaq did after the title run to even consider lifting his jersey in the rafters.