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MIAMI (AFP) – Shaquille O’Neal fulfilled a promise in 2006 to bring Miami its first NBA championship and the Heat said thank you on Thursday by retiring his No. 32 jersey.
The jersey was lifted to the rafters in an emotional but sometimes light-hearted halftime ceremony that included O’Neal’s mother, Lucille, arriving on the court behind the wheel of a scaled-down 18-wheel truck.
It was a miniature version – right down to the words ‘’Diesel Power’’ written on the side – of the semi that O’Neal once drove into town when he made that initial promise back in 2004.
But the best thing about Thursday night for the Heat was they rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit to beat O’Neal former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, 115-107 and snap a three-game losing skid.
O’Neal deflected the praise Thursday, thanking Heat boss Pat Riley as well as his teammates, especially star guard Dwyane Wade, who became the other half of the club’s one-two scoring punch.
‘’When you win championships, it becomes contagious. I felt like I still had a lot to give I just needed another piece. D-Wade was that piece,’’ O’Neal said. ‘’It was already his team so I wasn’t going to redecorate the Christmas tree.’’
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team trailed by seven points at halftime, said Miami got an emotional lift from listening to Shaq’s acceptance speech.
‘’It was like going down memory lane. It felt like 2006,’’ he said. ‘’Shaq engaged the entire crowd with incredible class.
‘’Our players were sitting there with eyes wide open. They saw a vision of what we’re trying to build and what the arena is like when you have a legitimate championship-contending team. It was a special presentation.’’
Indeed it was. O’Neal’s message didn’t go unnoticed by Justise Winslow. He scored a career-high 23 points and Hassan Whiteside had his sixth double-double in a row to lead Miami past the struggling Lakers, who have fallen on hard times since the days of O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
‘’It was a great environment,’’ said Winslow, who posted a career high in points and a season high in rebounds.
‘’We knew the fans were going to be out here to see Shaq’s jersey hanging. We knew it was going to electric, and we wanted to give them a show. It was a lot of fun playing in this arena tonight.’’