- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Shaquille O’Neal last wore an Orlando Magic uniform in 1996. He suited up for the final time with the Los Angeles Lakers five years ago.

Come to think of it, he hasn’t played a game for any team in two months.

And yet, he’s been one of the biggest stars of the NBA finals. The series has been played in Shaq’s shadow, with the center’s enormous footprints all over it.

O’Neal might be the NBA’s greatest showman, bestowing himself with such nicknames as the Big Aristotle or the Big Cactus. Orlando general manager Otis Smith has another one: the Big Conglomerate.

Los Angeles, looking for its first title since trading O’Neal, entered Game 5 Sunday night with a 3-1 lead over Orlando, having its greatest season since Shaq skipped town.

Even before the Lakers had a chance to wrap up their 15th title, the teams again shared the stage with Shaq. ESPN reported Sunday that renewed talks between Cleveland and Phoenix about a trade involving O’Neal were in the preliminary stages. There were, however, no signs a deal was imminent.

Other presumed finals matchups brought natural story lines: Had Cleveland made it, this would have been Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. Boston in the finals would have set up another rematch of the league’s most storied franchises.

The only natural link once Orlando knocked off those two East powers was Shaq. And O’Neal, who craves attention, must love it that players keep getting questioned about him while they’re trying to focus on winning a championship.

Bryant, for example, was asked what he made of O’Neal openly rooting for the Lakers in the series.

“I don’t make much of it,” he said.

Or the time Dwight Howard was asked why he thinks O’Neal has said disparaging things about him.

“I haven’t spoken to him one on one. I don’t know. I can’t tell you why he’s said a lot of discouraging things,” Howard said. “I wish he wouldn’t say it because he’s one of the few guys that we all look up to. But you can’t control what he says.”

O’Neal’s representatives declined a request for an interview before the series, citing their client’s schedule. But Shaq’s fans know he’s watching the finals from his Twitter updates, where in 140 characters or less he can tell his followers that he wants Bryant to win a fourth ring, or praise former teammates such as Derek Fisher and Robert Horry.

Both teams once thought playing in mid-June would be an annual occurrence because they had the dominant big man. That’s the formula that led so many franchises to titles, and the NBA record book is littered with centers who were finals MVPs: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Hakeem Olajuwon just to name a few.

O’Neal pulled off the feat three times, but the Lakers soon realized how hard it was to win without him after trading him to Miami in 2004. The Magic couldn’t even win with him, but thought they would have more time.

Orlando drafted O’Neal with the top pick in 1992 and reached the NBA finals three years later. After the Magic lost in the conference finals in 1996, O’Neal became a free agent that summer and signed with the Lakers, one of the most significant transactions in league history.

Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, then a teammate in Orlando, recalls wondering why O’Neal would leave Orlando if the money was similar because Florida has no income tax.

“I remember a big topic at that time was he wanted to come to L.A. because he wanted to rap and act and do all that kind of stuff. Well, they have all those kinds of studios in Florida,” Shaw said. “I didn’t realize though until I was actually here that although you have a lot of those same things, it’s still a bigger market and more visible being here in L.A.

“As a player that was on that team when he left, that’s what I was thinking. I was like, ‘What, he has all the same things?’ But L.A. is a different animal.”

O’Neal found bigger stardom and team success out West, then won a fourth ring in Miami. Things haven’t been the same in Phoenix, where the Suns missed the playoffs this season.

The Suns talked about trading him in February to reduce payroll, and with O’Neal set to make $21 million next season, they could consider it again.

If O’Neal does get dealt, maybe he even ends up part of the finals next year.

In a sense, he was this year.

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