BOSTON — Even before his Celtics debut, Shaquille O’Neal was already preparing for his next coming-out party: A Halloween ride on the Boston subway, dressed as a 7-foot-1, 345-pound woman named “Shaquita.”
“Something different,” he said this week after practicing for the NBA opener against LeBron James and the Miami Heat on Tuesday night.
Something different, for sure. That’s what the Celtics got when they signed the former MVP and future Hall of Famer to tide them over until Kendrick Perkins recovers from knee surgery.
“He brings that something off the floor probably as much as any player we’ve had. I’m good with that as long as he brings that same intensity on the floor,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He loves his job. He also understands and he’s not so serious that he can’t enjoy life and have fun with it.”
The new Big Three that brought Boston its 17th NBA title in 2008 will open the season against the three superstars who assembled in South Beach to bring James his first. But the most accomplished star on the court — most points, most championships, most nicknames — will be O’Neal, a 38-year-old four-time champion who is somehow injecting a youthful enthusiasm to his veteran team.
“This is the funnest team I’ve been on in my life. Seriously,” O’Neal said. “These guys are great. Usually, I’m the ringleader of bringing fun to a team, but I haven’t even done anything yet. These guys crack me up. Big Baby (Davis) and Nate (Robinson), they need their own TV show.”
Shaq already has one of those, along with a handful of movie credits, a few rap songs and more nicknames than you can count. But he knows the credentials that pay the bills are his 28,255 NBA points — fifth all-time — 12,921 rebounds (tops among active players), and the four championships he won (three with the Los Angeles Lakers, one with the Heat).
James’ teammate with the Cavaliers last year in an ill-fated attempt to win a championship in Cleveland, O’Neal decided he has two years left in him — 700 days, by his count. He was willing to take a lesser role (and the veteran’s minimum) to try to win a fifth title in Boston alongside Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
“This city wants a winner. I want a winner. Everybody on this team wants to win,” O’Neal said. “For me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Even before the first jump ball is in the air, the town has fallen in love with O’Neal’s unique combination of wacky antics and superstar mystique.
His signing was followed by days of debate over a new nickname befitting his Boston arrival; “The Big Shamroq” seems to be the winner, though he has also dubbed himself “The Godfather of Sudbury,” his new suburban home town. Last week, he spent a motionless hour on a bench in Harvard Square, pretending to be a statue while passers-by posed for pictures with him.
“I can always tell my friends I went to Harvard,” he explained. “I went to Harvard, I stood at Harvard, and I graduated from Harvard. So now I’m smart.”
So, what’s next?
He said he might buy a snowsuit and stand in a field so people could throw snowballs at him. The idea was floated that he ride the Boston subway, known as the “T”; when O’Neal realized that Halloween is next Sunday, he freestyled a plan to take a trip wearing a wig, dress and falsies.
Just like that, he was “Shaquita,” chasing a reporter around the practice gym, chest extended, as if trying to kiss him.
“I think Shaq gets it as much as any player I can remember, as far as the media and the public and the fans,” Rivers said. “He gets all that. That’s who he is. As long as he does what we need him to do. We just want to make sure he’s not a statue defensively.”