— INDEPENDENCE, Ohio - Cavaliers fans have waited awhile for someone like Shaquille O’Neal to arrive. Since 2003, they have been longing for another star, some gifted player who might be an able complement for the supernova they already had in LeBron James.
But no one came — until Thursday.
As high noon gave way to 1:30 p.m., in strolled the star they had wished for. In strolled Shaq.
He came here to do what Scottie Pippen did for Michael Jordan, to do what James Worthy did for Magic Johnson, to do what Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish did for Larry Bird or to do what Ed McMahon did for Johnny Carson: to serve as the sidekick for the marquee name.
The Cavs needed that complementary talent, a fact they learned the hard way during the Eastern Conference finals. They found themselves a gigantic piece away from matching up well with the Orlando Magic, so if King James had any hope next season of bringing this Rust Belt city its first championship since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL crown in 1964, he needed help.
And help arrived in the massive form of the 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaq. Amid cheers and applauds, he entered the team’s practice facility in a southeast suburb looking fit, trim and dressed to kill.
Who said real men don’t wear pink?
They couldn’t have been talking about Shaq, whom the Cavaliers picked up earlier in the week in a trade with the Phoenix Suns.
For as he walked toward a makeshift stage at the center of the practice court, Shaq sported pink — shirt and tie — with the cocksureness of a man comfortable in whatever he wore.
Yet the occasion was less about Shaq’s sartorial splendor and more about his mere presence, which made this day one Cavaliers fans might never forget. In Shaq, they were seeing in the flesh the star who holds promise of being the team’s missing piece, a player who might be able to help carry the franchise to NBA glory.
No one is expecting Shaq to do so alone. He’s not coming to Cleveland to be the focal point, a fact he stressed. He will serve as the King’s Pippen, a hulk of man whose power in the paint can disrupt an opponent’s offense and produce some offense of his own.
“We all know this is LeBron’s team,” Shaq told a gym filled with journalists, team officials and schoolchildren in red Cavaliers T-shirts. “I’m not gonna change this.”
His words went over well here. All of them sounded sincere, providing a bit of solace for any person who wondered aloud how Shaq might mesh with James. In any team sport, mixing the egos of two strong-willed stars can often prove a dicey proposition, and a team like the Cavs can’t walk down that path without trepidation.
Nothing Shaq said should have worried them, however. He was self-effacing, witty and spontaneous — traits seldom found in the man that he’ll partner with to bring a title here.
In fielding questions, Shaq dismissed any concerns about his age. His glory days are behind him — no debate there. He’s now 37, but he said he’s a young 37, not some old Clydesdale that can’t pull his load.
“I still got good years left,” he insisted.
The Cavaliers are banking on that. They know that, in the tough Eastern Conference, Shaq won’t have a deep pool of centers to battle night after night. But everybody in the practice facility knew the list of centers who worried the Cavs had one name on it: Dwight Howard, the Magic star whose domination inside led to their elimination from this year’s playoffs.
The Cavs needed Shaq to contain Howard one on one, a task nobody else on the roster proved capable of doing. Shaq assured he could do that — and more.
He’s not looking to come into town and control the play; he’s here to help LeBron James and the city savor an NBA championship, which Shaq has four of.
“My motto is very simple: ‘Win a Ring for the King,’” Shaq said.
He joked that he’s in the security business these days, and his job now is to protect the King, though complement him might be a better choice of words.
Shaq will have succeeded if a championship marks the end of the 2009-10 season.
That’s a daunting challenge for a person, even for someone who lives life as large as Shaquille O’Neal. Yet the King’s, the franchise’s and the city’s expectations mirror Shaq’s own expectations. The man didn’t come to Cleveland to rest on his glorious past; he came here with his future in mind.
His future has a fifth NBA title as its target, and whatever it might take to hit that target dead center, he promised he’s onboard for it.
“We’ve got everything in place,” Shaq said. “We’ve just got to get it done.”