- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

MIAMI — Shaquille O’Neal says he is at peace.

Not at his happiest but at peace.

Sitting at the locker formerly occupied by Udonis Haslem, wearing a Panama hat that drew a whistle of admiration from teammates, O’Neal offered a glimpse into the mind of a discarded player — at least in his opinion — sent packing 3,000 miles from Los Angeles despite being the most unstoppable force in the game.

“I’m happy, but I’m not the type to be jolly. I’m at peace,” O’Neal said. “Go back to the tape of me after all my championships and I never jumped up and down. In real life, [heck] yeah. I’ve got a gorgeous life, a gorgeous baby, two mansions in this state. Yeah, I’m happy. But in basketball life I don’t get too jolly.”

That self-assessment might seem at odds with the traditional depiction of O’Neal as the larger-than-life yukster with a personality as huge as his 7-foot-1, 335-pound frame.

No other NBA star is even remotely as close to being as comfortable with his celebrity status, yet O’Neal still finds himself an even rarer commodity — one of the few sports figures traded at the height of his career.

It remains to be seen whether O’Neal, 32, already has passed that plateau, but there’s an unmistakable tone of discomfort in O’Neal’s voice as he ponders his new place in a changed NBA world.

“Young guys are different these days. They have a lot more leeway to do what they’re not supposed to do,” O’Neal said in an interview with the Associated Press. “When I was a rookie, Scott Skiles and Nick Anderson stayed on me, and then Magic [Johnson] and Charles [Barkley] stayed on me. You don’t have that now.

“Now we’ve got 18-year-olds coming in being told how great they are, but they don’t listen. They don’t know certain things like get a million dollars and put 600,000 away, play with 400,000. They want to get a million and spend 2 million, and when this stops they wonder where it went.”

O’Neal’s bitterness toward the league’s younger generation is telling. After all, it was a player six years his junior who was most responsible for his departure from the Los Angeles Lakers, who sent him to Miami for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a draft pick.

In the Shaq-Kobe Bryant feud that kept the summertime and preseason focus more directed toward last season’s Lakers than this season’s Pistons, Heat, Spurs or Rockets, O’Neal emerged as the lesser of two Lakers, the guy deemed expendable — along with coach Phil Jackson — in the quest to placate Bryant as the Lakers move into the latter half of this decade.

O’Neal’s disdain for Bryant no longer needs to be hidden behind the big brother-little brother facade that never truly existed, yet equally evident is his discomfort in finding himself surrounded by the unfamiliar likes of Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, Christian Laettner, Wang Zhi-Zhi, Damon Jones, Haslem and Michael Doleac instead of Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Derek Fisher, Devean George and Bryant.

Still, O’Neal appreciates the fresh start.

“The people have been very, very hospitable. The organization has been great. The weather’s been great,” O’Neal said. “It’s just been great.”

Although O’Neal is surrounded by a less-talented supporting cast than the one he and Bryant had in Los Angeles, he has landed in a division in which the opposing centers he will face four times apiece include Atlanta’s Jason Collier, Washington’s Brendan Haywood, Charlotte’s Primoz Brezec and Orlando’s Andrew DeClercq.

The attention he will draw on the inside will open up the outside for guards Wade and Jones.

“I was shooting 50 percent from the field, man,” Jones recalled of playing alongside O’Neal in Los Angeles for two-plus seasons in the late 1990s. “You’re licking your fingers just lining the ball up.”

There is a renewed sense of excitement in Miami that has been absent for the four years since former franchise stalwart Alonzo Mourning returned from the 2000 Sydney Olympics and learned a rare kidney disease would sidetrack his career.

Miami missed the playoffs for two straight years before advancing to the second round last spring and being eliminated in six games by Indiana.

This season, the goals are higher.

O’Neal’s face is draped on a banner reading “Shaq in Black” across the front of the American Airlines Arena, and he has settled into his newest seaside city by purchasing former Heat center Rony Seikaly’s seven-bedroom, 20,000-square-foot home on exclusive Star Island, where Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan are among neighbors, for $16.9million.

He has a dock but nothing to park there.

“I can’t afford a boat,” he said as a joke.

He certainly can afford one, and perhaps he should christen it with the motto he has chosen to sum up his psyche: “At Peace.”

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