It was the latest love fest between Boston and , the basketball star and public relations maestro who joined the in August and has quickly won over a city known for being prickly to outsiders.
“I think I’ve sort of been grandfathered in,” Mr. O’Neal, known here as the Big Shamrock, said at a news conference before . “I think, you know, people kind of appreciate my humor, and they appreciate my hard work.”
Local sports stars have not always been on the best of terms with Boston — an odd quirk given the city’s obsession with its professional teams. Consider , who refused to tip his cap to Red Sox fans at Fenway Park after the last home run of his career, or , who vexed fans by not matching their passion for baseball. , the Patriots quarterback, is beloved but not accessible, appearing more in celebrity magazines than local hangouts.
“You don’t see most of these guys doing that kind of mingling with regular people,” said Raymond Howell, a public relations executive and sports fan who has been following Mr. O’Neal’s every move. “Usually they’re in the sports pages or the society pages, doing their charitable thing, and that’s it.”
Mr. O’Neal’s connection with Boston is all the more striking, some here say, given the city’s old reputation of not welcoming black athletes. The Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate their roster, and are remembered for refusing the chance to acquire in 1949.
In the 1960s, the Celtics legend Bill Russell called Boston “a flea market of racism” after vandals broke into his home and left slurs on the walls. And while the Celtics were the first team to draft a black player (Chuck Cooper in 1950) and hire a black head coach (Mr. Russell in 1966), they were considered such a white team that many teenagers in the city’s black neighborhoods wore the jerseys of their archrival, the .
Mr. O’Neal said he knew the stories, but added that “there’s racism everywhere” and that he had never experienced it here. He did, however, experience “scary” hostility as a visiting player, he said, with the Lakers, the and the .
“The crazy thing is, I didn’t know people were this nice,” he said.
It was clear that Mr. O’Neal’s time with the Celtics would be different when, soon after signing, he showed up in Cambridge and wandered through Yard, asking students to direct him to the microphysics building.
Since then, he has used () to inform the public of other capers, including visits to the bar made famous by “Cheers,” where he perched on a stool and sang “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” and Harvard Square, where he spent an hour posing as a statue while an incredulous crowd gathered.
“I actually wanted to take a class at Harvard,” he said in an interview, “but it was just too much work.”
Tommy Heinsohn, a Celtics Hall of Famer from the ’60s who is now the team’s television color commentator, said Boston can be “tremendously loyal” to athletes who are not homegrown, but the allegiance usually takes years to develop.
“Shaq captivated people the first week — that’s how good he is,” Mr. Heinsohn said. “I don’t know if it would have happened 30 years ago, but it’s an unusual thing even for it to happen now.”
He added: “I don’t even think John L. Sullivan had as big an impact as this guy,” referring to the 19th-century heavyweight champion nicknamed the Boston Strong Boy.
It helps that Mr. O’Neal, who plans to retire after his two-year contract here expires, has made no secret of wanting a fifth championship ring to match his nemesis, of the Lakers.
Mr. O’Neal has also toned down his famous on-court ego, taking a complementary role on a team with three gifted veterans — Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce — and a young star, the point guard Rajon Rondo. At 38, and as the oldest player in the league, Mr. O’Neal now plays far fewer games and minutes than he did in his prime, but as the team’s second-leading rebounder, he has helped the Celtics to the second-best record in the N.B.A. so far. “People who come here to win are just immediately taken in,” said Keith Lockhart, the conductor of the Boston Pops.
Mr. Lockhart, who has his own complicated relationship with the city, marveled as Mr. O’Neal warmly greeted ushers before Monday’s concert, murmuring, “I haven’t done that well in 16 years.”
Boston also appreciates a nimble wit, and Mr. O’Neal has one. When a reporter asked how Mr. O’Neal had “figured us out so quickly,” he shot back: “Google.”
As the first snow of the season fell that night, Mr. O’Neal was thinking ahead to his “next thing” — an experiment to be known as Snowball Shaq Attack. For details, keep an eye on Twitter.
“I’m going to just stand in some snow,” he said, “and people are going to stand a certain amount of feet back and get to throw a snowball at me.”
“I’ll wear a snowsuit and I’ll probably wear a hockey mask to protect my eyes,” Mr. O’Neal said. “But we’re just going to go have fun. I’m a tough kid.”