Shaq vs. Salem? No contest.
The 7-foot-1-inch Celtics center, Shaquille O'Neal, won over locals as he toured the Witch City and other North Shore haunts this weekend. Shaq and his family grabbed lunch at the Hawthorne Hotel, went shopping at the Museum Place Mall and topped it off with ice cream at Treadwell's in Peabody.
Salem native Monica Hamilton Kozlowski said she heard by word-of-mouth and online that the supersized basketball player might be in the city. She was returning from apple picking with her father, Ray Kozlowski, and her roommate, Milli Colon, when they spotted O'Neal and his family entering the Hawthorne Hotel.
"We were just driving around in circles," she said. "We drove by and saw him walk into the hotel. We happened to wait long enough, and he came out."
The 40-minute wait was worth it. They approached and asked if they could take a photo. He agreed, and they chatted briefly about his experience in Salem, which he was enjoying, and his height.
"We couldn't believe how tall he was," said Monica Hamilton Kozlowski, who is 5-foot-6. "We didn't think he was going to be that huge standing next to us."
They were among the first to encounter Shaq, but minutes later, she said, as he walked down Hawthorne Boulevard, the three-time NBA MVP started to attract attention from the crowds.
"We just took the picture and let him on his merry way," she said.
O'Neal and his family stopped at the Hawthorne Hotel's tavern for a bite to eat, said Juli Lederhaus, the hotel's general manager.
The staff, she said, was pleased to be waiting on the basketball player. And while he declined to have his picture taken in the restaurant, he did oblige a member of a wedding party at the hotel — the bridegroom and his crew.
O'Neal and his children also stopped at Treadwell's Ice Cream, owner Tom Gould said.
"We saw him pull in," Gould said yesterday. "The whole crowd went nuts."
The gracious athlete posed for a photo with his children and the staff.
"It was fun to see him," Gould said. "He was very genuine, very nice and down-to-earth."
The Celtic arrived about 12:30 p.m. and spent about 20 minutes there.
"He was driving by and saw the sign," Gould said. "I wish I could say it was our world-famous ice cream. His kids saw the ice cream, so he pulled in."