Shaquille O’Neal: Easy being Green

By Dan Duggan |

WALTHAM - Shaquille O’Neal never thought he’d wear a Celtics [team stats] uniform. The C’s never thought they’d be able to sign the future Hall of Famer. But there was O’Neal Tuesday, displaying his new green No. 36 jersey at an introductory press conference at the Celtics practice facility.

All it took to make the unlikely moment happen was a few phone calls, a meeting in Italy and some compromises by the 18-year-veteran.

“I wanted to be with a team that’s used to winning,” said O’Neal, who wore a suit and bow tie. “I wanted to be with a team that was one or two pieces away from winning the whole thing. I thought this was a good fit.”

The Celtics reached out to O’Neal on the first day of free agency, July 1, but figured their lack of salary cap space would prevent them from enticing the 38-year-old center to sign.

With the free agent’s options limited, his agent called Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and said O’Neal would be willing to come in on the C’s terms. That led to O’Neal signing a two-year veteran’s minimum contract, worth an approximate total of $3 million, last week.

Before the Celtics could pull the trigger on the signing, O’Neal had a meeting with coach Doc Rivers while both were vacationing recently in Italy.

O’Neal appreciated Rivers’ honesty during the discussion. The coach made no grand promises, only telling O’Neal there were 20-25 minutes per game of playing time available on a team with only one goal.

“I told him if there’s any other agendas then we’re not your team,” Rivers said. ‘But if winning is your agenda then we absolutely are your team.”

Rivers preference is to bring O’Neal off the bench to give the second unit a low post scoring option. The lineup will be determined during September’s training camp, when O’Neal will compete with fellow free agent signee Jermaine O’Neal for the starting center spot. Incumbent starter Kendrick Perkins [stats] is expected to be out until mid-February as he recovers from knee surgery.

Shaquille O’Neal might have been less willing to accept a reduced role in other situations, but he’s joining a Celtics team with a core of respected leaders that came within six minutes of winning a second title in three years in June.

“The roles I had on previous teams were different, whereas I’m much older now,” O’Neal said. “This team is a good team with or without me. Sometimes in order to win you have to sacrifice.”

O’Neal received support yesterday from Kevin Garnett, who flew in from Hawaii to greet his new teammate. O’Neal said he’s looking forward to protecting Garnett, who has “always been one of my young favorite players.”

While everything was harmonious yesterday, Rivers pointed out that things are typically smooth during the summer. The real challenges arise during the season, and there are already a few facing Rivers.

For a team prided on defense, the C’s must figure out a way to mask O’Neal’s biggest weakness - defending the pick-and-roll. Rivers knows opponents will try to exploit O’Neal’s struggles to defend the bread-and-butter play of many offenses.

The coach will also need to find a way to reintegrate Perkins when he’s healthy, though that won’t be an issue until further down the road.

For now, the focus is on what O’Neal brings to the Celtics.

“I think Doc and the people will see I still have hunger, I still can play and I’m still trying to win,” O’Neal said. “Because at the end of the day, when I close my book, it’s all about winning.”


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