Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome in the Shaq era! Is an NBA title next?

I guess this is it -- the Shaquille O'Neal era opens tonight in a couple of minutes inside The Q. Shaq will be stepping onto the arena floor, looking into the stands, a place crammed with fans who see Shaq as carrying their hopes for the future.

A friend reminded me the other day that we're in a period of "hope": The impossible is possible if hope remains alive, he told me. Didn't the election of a black man as U.S. president last November prove that anything is possible with hard work, with determination and with a little hope?

For a down-on-its-luck city like Cleveland, hope is what its people cling to like Velcro. They have been disappointed before, listening too often to the politicos and the sports stars and team officials make grand promises and then watching those promises end up unfulfilled.

But they all hope that these promises will be different. They all see the 7-foot-1, 345-pound Shag as a gigantic promise-keeper, a man with a winner's pedigree who can do what LeBron James couldn't do alone, which was win an NBA championship.

Shaq has won before. He has championship rings from his days with the Lakers and the Heat, and he had close calls with the Suns and the Magic, teams that fell short of winning the sport's grandest prize.

It's hard for this city to think of such thoughts. Winning a championship -- here? Impossible. It might be easier to fly to the moon on the wings of a sparrow.

For falling short of titles isn't anything the community hasn't faced the past two decades. Even LeBron came close to winning a ring in 2007, losing to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs in the NBA final.

Now, they might be that good again. They have pieces that were missing in their run to the Finals in '07. They have Shaq.

"We look to play well," LeBron said. "If we have a struggles early, it won't be a surprise."

His point is that the Cavs need to transition seamlessly into the Shaq era. Shaq knows that as well. He also knows why team officials brought him to Cleveland in the first place. They don't want close, and neither does LeBron. They all want a championship. They want one of the championship rings that Shaq wears. He would like to oblige them.

Tonight, in a sold-out arena, Shaq will give them a glimpse of what his presence here might hold. He will be stepping onto The Q floor against a Celtics team with the same hopes and aspirations, a team with a championship ring from two seasons ago.

The Celtics, too, want a ring, and they know, as everybody else who closely follows the NBA knows, the road to that championship must go through Shaq, LeBron and the Cavs.

That's what their fans hope, anyway. They're counting on Shaq to bring them that title, mostly because they can't be sure what LeBron will do with free agency ahead of him after this season.


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