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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Shaq content to be LeBron's sidekick

CLEVELAND (AP) Nowadays, this is how Shaq rolls.

Cramming his 216-cm, 147-plus kg frame into a four-wheeled office chair straining at its screws, Shaquille O'Neal raises those size 23 sneakers and slides across the Cavaliers practice court in Independence, Ohio, like a kid sledding down a snowy hill.

Nobody's in his path — not yet.

The Big Diesel, though, is searching to destroy. Gliding across the hardwood, he spots some targets: a group of reporters, looking like human bowling pins.

O'Neal pretends he can't stop, but before contact and untold injuries, he pushes off in the opposite direction and crashes into a wall, spilling slowly from his seat.

Everyone cracks up. O'Neal's fine. The wall holds up, too.

It's a classic Shaq moment: O'Neal is 37 — going on 13.

Weeks shy of another birthday, the center of this NBA generation and four-time champion is having a blast in his first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"This is the funnest, funniest team I've ever been on in my life," Shaq said, keeping one eye on a few teammates holding a post-practice dunk contest. "This is a close-knit group."

Shaq Daddy is helping them bond.

Pried away in a trade with Phoenix last June to aid LeBron James' drive for a first championship, O'Neal has helped the Cavs move atop the league's standings and positioned them to end the city's 46-year drought without a major sports title.

The preseason speculation that this arranged marriage with James might not work was off base. O'Neal and James are happy together, two icons sharing the spotlight without an outward trace of jealousy.

As long as the Cavs are winning, there won't be any trouble.

"It's his show and I'm just trying to make him look good," O'Neal said. "If we were the same age there might be a little tension, but I'm on my way out."

O'Neal has settled into Cleveland. Instead of living downtown, where the nightlife — while clearly not at the level of Los Angeles or Miami — could be a distraction, he opted for a place in rural Richfield, not far from where the Cavaliers played from 1970 through the mid-1990s.

The father of three boys, each of whom claims James as their favorite player, O'Neal is at a different place in his celebrated life. His wife, Shaunie, filed for divorce in November and O'Neal has taken on a lower profile in Cleveland.

He didn't host a Super Bowl party.

"Don't even have a TV," he said in his familiar baritone.

Still a player. But now a role player.

One of the game's all-time greats, O'Neal is content to be a sideman in Cleveland, splitting time with Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He wasn't always so willing to play second fiddle while alongside Lakers' star Kobe Bryant or the Heat's Dwyane Wade. But O'Neal understands that James is Cleveland's unchallenged megastar.

"I'm a realist," O'Neal said. "I like to put it in business terms. I ran three different corporations my way and I was successful. But I'm an older guy who is on his way out so they brought me in as a consultant for the new, up-and-coming CEO. I'm here for him."



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