This was the charitable Shaquille O'Neal in town today/tonight. He arrived in the afternoon, bantered with Kevin Johnson at a press conference in the early evening and was scheduled to speak at the Hyatt later as part of a benefit dinner for KJ's St. HOPE Academy. Shaq was in such a giving mood that he dared call the local team the Sacramento Kings, emphasizing the name to make sure that everyone got that he has dropped the Queens bit.
The basketball development from the visit: he looked good. Good enough that the Suns will be pleased as training camp is set to begin, good enough that the rest of the Pacific Division and Western Conference may have to contend with something other than a bloated, floor-bound O'Neal.
Game condition is much different than being in shape from offseason workouts, so the final determination on his conditioning won't be known for at least a couple weeks. But this is a very encouraging start to 2008-09 for Phoenix, a team that can use the favorable momentum in the wake of the early playoff exit, the decision to cut ties with popular coach Mike D'Antoni and the hiring of former Kings assistant coach Terry Porter as the successor at a crossroads moment for the roster.
Shaq said he was about 335 pounds, and that looked about right. Of course, he said he reported to camp at the same weight the previous two seasons, before he broke down in Miami. Visually, the statement is far more believable this time.
His physical status means everything because of the stakes in Phoenix, with the Suns either in mid-fade or O'Neal motivated to dig deep one last time and everyone figuring to benefit from Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and O'Neal having a training camp together. A motivated O'Neal can still be a dangerous thing for the West.
"I predict that we won't lose in the first round," Shaq said today.
"Because I know me."
That's as far as his bold boasts went. Ex-Sun Johnson, though, made him promise to cut the ring in half and share it if Phoenix wins the championship.
"OK," O'Neal said. "And I want one of those mayor's badges."