MIAMI — Shawn Marion was a fan favorite in Phoenix for many years, a stalwart of the run-and-gun Suns teams that were perennial playoff contenders.
But his return to Phoenix will be overshadowed by a 7-foot-1 guy who, well, overshadows just about everything.
When Marion and the Miami Heat visit the Suns tonight, it’ll be the first time Shaquille O’Neal sees the Heat since the trade that brought closure to a decaying relationship toward the end of last season. O’Neal says it’s just another game, but even some of his current teammates aren’t buying that story.
So get ready for Shaq-Miami I.
“The type of person Shaq is and the pride he has, I’m sure he didn’t feel like he was getting the benefit of the doubt down there at the end of the day,” Suns guard Raja Bell said. “He has something to prove to the league and Miami. So I wouldn’t expect much less than Shaq coming out early and dominating.”
Odds are, Suns fans will be thrilled to see Marion.
Most Heat players, though, seem ambivalent to seeing Shaq.
He doesn’t keep in regular contact with most players on Miami’s roster — in fairness, he played with only a handful of them — and Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem are the only Heat starters remaining from the 2006 NBA title team, the highlight of Shaq’s 3 1/2 seasons in South Florida.
And even Shaq acknowledges that he doesn’t speak with Wade anymore.
“I’ve been watching Shaq since I was 5 years old, since he was breaking backboards in Orlando,” Heat rookie Michael Beasley said. “It’s special. It’s like meeting Michael Jordan, almost. I guess it’s something. I think there’s going to be animosity, good competitiveness. I think it’s going to be a real good game. I just hope I don’t have to take a charge against him.”
That duty will go to Haslem, the league’s smallest starting center, who’s only half a foot and 100 pounds smaller than O’Neal.
Still, Haslem is maybe the happiest Heat player to see O’Neal.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing him, period, not just the challenge,” Haslem said. “We had a good run together. There’s much love there between me and him. But other than that, I’m approaching it like any other game. Nothing special about it.”
If past stats are any indication, O’Neal could be primed for a big night. In his first games against the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers after leaving those two franchises, he averaged 24.5 points and 14.5 rebounds.
O’Neal largely forced Miami’s hand into making a trade last year, even asking for a buyout of the remaining 2 1/2 years of his $20-million-a-season deal. But Marion was quite content in Phoenix, which fancied itself as a championship contender.
Marion averaged 18.4 points in 660 games with the Suns, was part of six playoff appearances and went to four All-Star games wearing Phoenix colors.
“He’s had one of the greatest Suns careers of all time,” Phoenix guard Steve Nash said. “I’d imagine he’s going to have a great ovation. If he doesn’t, I’ll be extremely disappointed.”
Chances are, Marion will be received a bit better in this game than when O’Neal returns to Miami in March.
“Boo me,” O’Neal said. “You can’t hurt my feelings because my feelings don’t get hurt. Because I don’t have any feelings. I’m a martian.”