How Shaquille O’Neal passed the famous conditioning test in Miami
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How Shaquille O’Neal passed the famous conditioning test in Miami

The moment Kyle Lowry joined Jimmy Butler in Miami meant we’re in for another round of “Heat culture” bonanza. Next to Mark Jackson reminding us every 30 seconds that Kobe told Booker, “be legendary, and that’s what he’s doing,” the talk about Heat culture is the most used cliché since the NBA bubble.

We all know the stories. The Orlando bubble was the closes thing to a military boot camp there is, and that’s why the Heat responded well to the strict regime in Orlando. That was just another day in the office for Miami players. Take Duncan Robinson, for example. After a Hollywood-like story of getting drafted by the Heat, Robinson started his path in the G-League. Riley and Spoelstra watched one of his games and saw enough talent to move him up to the Heat, but also noticed something they didn’t like – there was a loose ball Duncan didn’t dive for. So the Heat developed a simple pregame drill for him – an assistant coach would randomly throw balls around the court, and Robinson would have to dive for them. $90 million later, Duncan Robinson obviously proved something to Pat Riley. 

The most demanding part of the gritty militaristic nature of the Miami Heat is the famous conditioning test. Considered by many to be the most grueling pre-season test in the NBA (and NFL), the Heat expect players to show up in peak shape – and then stay in peak shape throughout the season. One of the ways they make sure that happens is by weighing and checking body fat % twice a week – anything over 9%, and you are not playing. James Johnson learned about that the hard way. All this Heat culture talk made me wonder – how did a guy famous for playing himself into shape fit in with a team that expects you to be in peak shape on the first day of training camp?

Shaq famously told Phil Jackson he could get 100% effort in practice or at the game, and The Zen Master was smart enough to know the answer was “the game.” As we know, one of the main reasons for the Shaq-Kobe breakup was the fact Bryant couldn’t stand Shaq’s lack of dedication off the court. And then, out of all places, Shaq gets traded to an organization with a Kobe-level mentality when it comes to discipline and fitness. What was Pat Riley thinking?

The Godfather knew he was getting the most dominant player in NBA history and that Shaq’s been listening how he “can’t win it without Kobe” for a while. The drama around Shaq’s departure from LA just made things worse – meaning the Heat were getting that much more motivated O’Neal. Shaq obviously bought into the Heat way – as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The difference is obvious. Shaq wanted to come to Miami because of Dwyane Wade, but a secondary reason was Shaq wanted to regain his physical dominance, and the Heat had the regime that would help him do that. Now, I’m no nutritionist, but I still wouldn’t say the player on the right has a body fat percentage under 9%, would you? Shaq being Shaq, he found a way to circumvent the rules anytime he could. While talking about Kyle Lowry joining Miami, Jackie MacMullan shared this nugget.

“First of all, if he goes to Miami, Lowry’ll be on those plant-based diets wether he wants to or not – he’s gotta pass that body fat percentage test. Come on, the vaunted Heat culture, and Shaq isn’t there to change all the machines. When Shaq was there, when the coaches weren’t looking he’d turn the machines down and change the body fat numbers, and he’s not there to do that for Kyle Lowry.”

Jackie MacMullan, The Bill Simmons podcast

Classic Shaq. As much as he was dedicated and focused on proving Kobe and the Lakers wrong and winning a title outside of LA, there’s always time for some mischief.