CLEVELAND (AP) — The training room door flies open, and a monstrous figure steps into the frame, virtually filling up every square inch.

Shaquille O’Neal surveys the scene, his eyes bulging like an iguana’s at the sight of the media pack pinning LeBron James into his corner cubicle. That’s when Shaq busts into one of those crooked, Shaqalicious smiles, the one he uses when he’s about to deliver a one-liner.

O’Neal politely acknowledges the crowd now parting in front of him and begins to make his way across Cleveland’s locker room.

“Excuse me, King,” O’Neal says to James, with a slight touch of sarcasm. “Sorry, King.”

“Cool, big fella,” James replies.

Later, James shakes his head and reflects on his new, behemoth teammate.

“He seems to get bigger everyday,” the MVP said.

The Cavaliers are bigger, too. And to commemorate their 40th season in the NBA, they are wearing an XL — the roman numeral for 40 — on their jerseys.

XXXL would be more like it.

O’Neal, whose East-to-West-to-East-to-West-to-East pro career has landed him in Cleveland, has super-sized the Cavaliers, who are counting on the extra larger-than-life Big Tweeterer to finally end this rusted region’s 45-year title drought and maybe stop James from saying goodbye.

James can leave after this season, his seventh. The 25-year-old is eligible for free agency, and although he has never said he will bolt his home state, the fact that he hasn’t signed an extension this summer is seen by some as a warning sign.

O’Neal has transformed the Cavs into goliaths. They are the league’s top box-office attraction with a traveling two-ringed circus of superstar/celebrity power perhaps unlike any before it in sports. LeBron AND Shaq? Are you kidding?

The Jonas Brothers will have fewer road groupies than the Cavs.

“It’s going to be crazy,” James said.

O’Neal, who has worked as a reserve police officer in his spare time, has come to protect and serve.

“I’m in ‘Witness’ protection,” the 14-time All-Star said, referring to James’ Nike slogan. “Hopefully, I am that missing piece to get this franchise and this city over the hump.”

James has always revered O’Neal from afar. Now he’s adopted him as a big brother and formed a tandem that may one day join Magic-Kareem, Cousy-Russell, Stockton-Malone, Jordan-Pippen and even O’Neal-Bryant among the great duos in hoops history.

“Everybody in this league always looks at Shaq like the Godfather,” James said. “When you come into this league, you need to get to know him. He’s a guy you need to sign the papers with before you play a game. I’ve always been comfortable being around him. It’s not hard getting along with Shaq. His personality is great.”

Cleveland will begin its climb toward the top on Tuesday when the Cavs host the Boston Celtics in a 2009-10 season opener that may preview this season’s Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs and Celtics, who exchanged pushes and shoves in an exhibition earlier this week, will battle defending champ Orlando for Eastern supremacy in a conference that got much stronger during the offseason as all the powers added firepower.

A championship is far from guaranteed for the Cavs, who won 76 games — including the playoffs — last season but lost their last one on a sticky night in June. After starting the postseason 10-0, they were knocked out in six games by the Magic’s inside-outside attack of Dwight Howard and a bombardment of 3s.

Before the Cavs were even outside Floridian airspace after losing Game 6, general manager Danny Ferry was putting together a package to pry O’Neal away from Phoenix, a deal he nearly pulled off at the All-Star break and finally sealed on June 25.

Assuming Cleveland runs into Orlando again, the Cavs believe O’Neal, who has taken three franchises to the finals, can neutralize Howard and with the additions of forwards Jamario Moon (6-foot-8) and swingman Anthony Parker (6-6), Cleveland has enough length to contain Orlando’s sharpshooters.

However, it’s the 7-1, 325-pound O’Neal, looking more fit than he has in years, who will make the biggest difference. He’s in the final year of his $20 million per season contract and believes he can play at least two more years. He’d like them to be in Cleveland — with James and with a Cavaliers team he believes is special.

To Shaq, this is not some one-and-done experiment.

“This is probably the best team I’ve ever played on — on paper, anyway,” O’Neal said. “I’ve always been on management to get me the power forward I’ve needed and the shooters I’ve needed.”

In James, O’Neal, who is coming off an All-Star season with the Suns, has another extraordinary co-star like the ones he bonded with to win four titles — three straight with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and one with Dwyane Wade in Miami.

But although those relationships included diamond rings, champagne and downtown victory parades, there were rocky periods as well.

O’Neal clashed publicly and privately with Bryant and didn’t stop taking shots at him even after their split. There wasn’t the same acrimony with Wade, but the two played tug-of-war for the spotlight. From the time O’Neal arrived in Cleveland, critics said the James-O’Neal marriage is destined for disaster on and off the court.

O’Neal will clog the foul lane and get in James’ way, claim the naysayers. Others assume James will be jealous and threatened by O’Neal’s star power. Cleveland isn’t big enough for both of them. Shaq will wear out his welcome. He’s done it before.

James passes off the skepticism with a shrug.

“People look too far into individuals than the team aspect of things,” he said. “They think two stars can’t coexist. But it’s not just about me and Shaq, it’s about the whole team. Me and Shaq can’t do it by ourselves. We need everybody on the floor to work hard every day to make this thing happen.”

For now, the two megastars are just fine.

During Cleveland’s media day, James and O’Neal clowned around while posing for numerous magazine covers. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company when seen together at practice and games.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers remembers learning of the LeBron-Shaq merger and hoping it wasn’t true.

“I’ve heard, ‘Is Shaq good for their team?’ Like, how could he not be?” Rivers said. “I’ll take him. He gives them size, he gives them another post player, he gives them a great passer. He gives them a rebounder. He’s one of the most intimidating forces in the league.

“He absolutely gives them all those things.”

O’Neal will start, which means Zydrunas Ilgauskas will come off the bench for the first time in his career. The Cavs have depth like never before, championship depth, and depth they’ll need while starting guard Delonte West works his way back from personal issues.

“If Delonte doesn’t play, they’ve got Anthony Parker,” Charlotte coach Larry Brown said. “If Shaq doesn’t play, they’ve got Ilgauskas. If LeBron doesn’t play, you’ve got God.”

James’ future could hinge on how things play out over the months ahead with O’Neal.

“Next summer is next summer and when it gets here, I’ll deal with it,” James said. “This season’s going to be great.”


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