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O’Neal has fun right to the finish

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 4, 2011

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It wasn’t going to be a standard retirement announcement. Instead, it was part going-away party, part memory-lane stroll, part comedy routine.

Shaquille O’Neal sat at a stage yesterday in his suburban Orlando, Fla., home in front of the media and a televised audience he had invited as if they were lifelong friends.

“First of all, I want to thank everyone for coming out,’’ he said. “Appreciate you guys very, very much. Never thought this day would come. Father time has finally caught up with Shaquille O’Neal. I just want to say . . . ’’

He cut the sentence short when someone approached to hand him a cellphone. He put it to his ear.

“Who’s this?’’

Phil Jackson? Pat Riley? Who knew, really?

“Yes?’’

It had become a conversation.

“For real.’’

The facial expressions continued.

“You want me to come up and apply for the New York Knick general manager job?’’ he said, finally letting everyone in on the joke. “OK, sure. I’ll be up right after the press conference.

“That was the president of the Knicks. He wanted me to fly up right after the press conference to apply for the general manager job.’’

The 39-year-old O’Neal, who posted on Twitter Wednesday his intention to retire after 19 NBA seasons, clearly is keeping his options open. And with the announcement yesterday that Donnie Walsh will not return as the Knicks’ top basketball executive, O’Neal used the opportunity to have a little fun with the news.

True to form, O’Neal laughed as much as he reflected on the career of one of the most dominant forces the NBA has ever seen.

He thanked his parents and his children. He thanked the league and commissioner David Stern. He chased seriousness with humor.

“I’m going to miss a lot about the game,’’ O’Neal said. “I’m going to miss the competition, the camaraderie, the friendship, the fans, joking around with the media, and I’m really going to miss the free throws.’’

He thanked Jackson, who coached him to three titles with the Lakers, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

“Phil Jackson was the one who taught me how to really focus and really, really concentrate on what was going on and how to get to that championship level,’’ O’Neal said. “Playing for Doc Rivers this year was really special because we had a lot of talent on the team, but Doc Rivers always, always, always focused on the team.

“I can remember one time, I came in, I was like, ‘Doc, I’m 5 for 6, if you want I can go 10 for 12 or 12 for 18,’ and he kind of said, ‘Shaq, it’s not about you, it’s about the team.’ ’’

O’Neal said that since he was retiring, his collection of nicknames would be retiring, too. “The Big Aristotle.’’ “Shaq Fu.’’ “The Big Shamrock.’’ “The Big Cactus.’’ “The Diesel.’’

“And finally, the one and only, original, never to be duplicated or replicated, ‘Superman,’ ’’ he said, not passing that torch to Magic center Dwight Howard. “So from now on, you guys can call me the ‘Big AARP.’ ’’

He did, however, give a nod to Howard.

“There’s only one real dominant big man right now, and that’s Dwight Howard,’’ O’Neal said. “I expect him to win three or four championships. If he doesn’t win three or four championships, I’ll be disappointed.’’

Saying that in Orlando, the city that once had hung its championship hopes on O’Neal, seemed ironic. He then opened it up to questions, and didn’t avoid ones that dealt with the way he left Orlando — signing a $121 million contract to play with the Lakers and “other selfish reasons like movies,’’ he said.

“I wish things would have worked out different,’’ he said. “In business, guys have to handle their business the right way. [The Magic] have a chance, they’re one or two pieces away from getting it done. I’m going to be calling [Magic president] Alex Martins and I’m going to be getting some of those floor seats. For free, of course.’’

As for his well-publicized beef with Kobe Bryant, O’Neal said it was a matter of being “task-driven’’ and not “relationship-driven.’’ That task was to win a title, and he and Bryant won three together.

“A lot of people think we hate each other,’’ O’Neal said. “It was all about the tactics.’’

The year he spent in Boston will be remembered for his off-court ubiquity and the injuries that kept him from playing most of the second half of the season. He played five minutes against Detroit April 3, but limped off the floor. His 12 minutes in two playoff games were inconsequential.

“I tried, I just couldn’t pull it off,’’ he said. “Watched the [Detroit] game when I got home, looked terrible. That’s not the way I wanted to go out.’’

O’Neal said he’s still considering surgery to repair his inflamed Achilles’ tendon. Recovery would take nine months, he said, just one reason he killed any speculation of a possible comeback.

“I definitely won’t be back, and let me tell you the reason why,’’ O’Neal said. “Toward the end of my career, I started to get a little bit selfish. I always heard the two most dominant players were Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal. Wilt’s at 31,000 and I’m at 28,000. If I had like 100 points fewer than him, then I would come back to pass him and that would put me as the most dominant player in the world. But I’m about three years away, so I’ll just have to remain at No. 5.’’

O’Neal’s stepfather, Phillip Harrison, pointed out that he could have cut the gap if he had knocked down more free throws.

“He said, ‘You dummy, if you would have hit those free throws like I taught you, you would have had 30,000 points,’ ’’ O’Neal joked.

Once the reminiscing was done, he told the media to “put the pens down, put the cameras down. We’re going to party for my last timeout.’’

But, he reminded everybody, he’s looking for a job.

“I do plan on entertaining you for the next 19 years,’’ he said. “Whether it’s TNT, ESPN, CNN, whoever wants to hire me. My offices open up on Monday, give me a call.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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