Time for a little honesty here: if you had told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a piece celebrating Shaquille O’Neal’s time in Lakers colors, I probably would have laughed, and then used some colorful language to underscore how unlikely it was.
The wounds were just too fresh back then for things to be seen clearly.
After O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, he took on the villain role for many Lakers fans, myself included. A former ally had turned into a bitter enemy, and the animosity was very real. Still, here we are.
Time apparently does heal all wounds.
Of course, O’Neal’s departure only cut so deep because he meant so much to the city and franchise. From the very moment he arrived, Shaq ushered in a new era of Lakers basketball.
He had spent the first four years of his NBA career tearing down backboards in Orlando, but the Magic made a critical miscalculation in how they handled his free agency, allowing Jerry West and the Los Angeles Lakers to swoop in and steal the biggest whale of them all.
The heir to the throne had finally arrived; a player with the talent to walk in the footsteps of Magic, Kareem, West, Baylor and Chamberlain.
Los Angeles offered him an intriguing supporting cast, with young players like Nick Van Exel, Robert Horry (who was obtained mid-season in the Cedric Ceballos trade), Elden Campbell, and Eddie Jones leading the way. A trio of rookies – Derek Fisher, Travis Knight, and a guy named Kobe Bryant – offered hope that the team could win both now and in the future. Veterans Jerome Kersey and Byron Scott were even on board to provide leadership and keep the team on track.
Off the court, O’Neal was tailor-made for Hollywood, with a personality just as big as his massive frame. He soaked up the spotlight, enjoying opportunities in music and film while dominating the hardwood every night.
It was such an exciting time for Los Angeles. In an instant, the Lakers jumped from having a decent young core of players to being a contender. Fans welcomed Shaq with open arms, flocking to the Great Western Forum and later the STAPLES Center in droves to see the big man, and I was one of them.
For my 15th birthday, during Shaq’s first season in Los Angeles, my parents bought me tickets to see the Lakers take on the Los Angeles Clippers at the Anaheim Pond. The prospect of seeing a Lakers game live was exciting enough, but to see Shaq play in person, well that was a mind-blowing opportunity.
Unfortunately, O’Neal was injured just two days before and the depleted Lakers were uncharacteristically blown out by the Clippers, 108-86. Not a great game to attend, and I’ve repressed most of it. However, I’ll never forget my first in-person glimpse of Shaq. He emerged from the tunnel and lumbered towards the bench in street clothes, and as disappointed as I was that he wouldn’t be playing, it was still a sight to behold.
It made me think back to the story of David and Goliath, and the massive warrior that was felled by a boy with a sling. I had always considered the tale to be something of an exaggeration, since giants didn’t exist. Yet, here was Shaq, suggesting otherwise.
There are many, many times when an NBA athlete does something on the court that seems to defy nature. Magic’s vision and passing, Michael Jordan’s leaping ability, Steph Curry’s shooting, all appear to be extraordinary, as though they have somehow crossed the line from human to superhuman. Shaq had that mutant-gene on the court too – there is no way a person his size and weight should be that nimble – but even in street clothes, he was clearly no mere mortal.
In a league full of hyper-athletes, O’Neal still managed to stand out.
Opposing teams had to game-plan for him on a nightly basis, changing their defenses in the hopes of slowing “Superman” down. He was so big and powerful that the rest of the league stocked up on size, knowing that even a relatively poor basketball player could at least be a big body and six fouls to put against O’Neal.
In that way, Shaq’s existence in the NBA directly created jobs for slow-footed, bulky, plodding centers who otherwise may have never made it. In today’s Association, where skill and spacing rule, it’s almost comical to think that one player single-handedly postponed the small-ball revolution, but that’s exactly what O’Neal did.
As the years went by, Shaq added hardware to his growing mystique. He was named league MVP in 2000, and brought a three-peat of championships to Los Angeles, earning Finals MVP each year. All the while, his connection to the legion of Lakers fans, myself included, grew.
The unforgettable moments were seemingly endless. The lob from Kobe against Portland in 2000, backing Dikembe Mutombo down with so much force that he was lifted off the floor in 2001, dismantling the entire Nets team in 2002, it all showcased what made Shaq so special. Size, strength, agility, he had it all (except free throws).
He loved Los Angeles, and Los Angeles loved him. Unfortunately, that love didn’t extend to Bryant, the young guard who had grown tired of playing second-fiddle.
The dynamic duo couldn’t be more different, with Shaq taking a Hulk-smash approach to anyone in his path while Bryant channeled Batman’s calculating, unapologetic justice. Off the court, the differences were even more pronounced, as O’Neal’s fun-loving nature conflicted with Bryant’s relentless obsession with perfection.
They were like oil and water, but their talent allowed the team to be successful anyway.
Unfortunately, despite the dominance of the Shaq/Kobe one-two punch, by 2004 it had become clear that the two could no longer coexist. O’Neal was demanding a large contract extension, which only complicated matters and distanced himself from the organization.That summer, with Bryant heading into free agency, a choice had to be made.
I remember wishing that Bryant would go to management and promise to come back as long as Shaq was still in the picture; that when push came to shove, the two would realize how much they needed each other.
Instead, we got a car crash in slow motion, with all who witnessed it helpless to stop the destruction. Fans were caught in the middle of the Shaq/Kobe divide, but regardless of which side a person fell on, all could agree that the divorce was tragic.
Ultimately, the Lakers decided to trade Shaq in order to pave the way towards keeping Kobe. It was the right decision, even if it was a painful one. Bryant was the younger of the two, and locked in on a new contract, he would guarantee that the Lakers would have a star to build around for years to come.
The line in the sand was drawn, and I stepped firmly onto Team Kobe, along with Lakers organization.
O’Neal was welcomed to his new home in Miami with a massive unveiling, complete with banners celebrating “Shaq in Black”. The trade was heralded as an enormous win for the Heat and a huge loss for the Lakers, who received a underwhelming package of Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and a first round pick in exchange for their star.
Miami was suddenly dreaming of championships, and it came at the Lakers expense.
Mistakenly, I directed most of my frustration at O’Neal himself. Sports are a funny thing in the way that they can become so important despite their relative simplicity. So many emotions can come about based on where a ball goes and when. Who we support becomes part of our identity, and a player leaving, especially under less-than-ideal circumstances, can feel like a slap in the face, as though we have been personally wronged.
The ability to lose yourself in something so much is part of the beauty as well, but the haze of fandom can also obscure our better judgment.
So I hated Shaq, and I wasn’t the only one. Lakers fans booed him vigorously when he dared return to the STAPLES Center, treating their one-time King as a traitor.
I relished the moment when Andrew Bynum dunked on him in 2006, and cursed the referees when Dwyane Wade’s free throw parade brought a title to South Beach that summer.
The Lakers’ struggles were to be blamed on O’Neal and his contract demands. On some level, I knew better, that O’Neal’s departure wasn’t solely his fault, but someone had to be the scapegoat.
As time went by though, the resentment dissipated, as it tends to do. My own feelings reflected those of many Lakers fans, who were beginning to once again appreciate O’Neal for the incredible moments he produced while wearing a Lakers uniform rather than despise him for how it ended.
In 2009 Shaq and Kobe were named co-MVP of the All-Star game. There were still a few testy moments to come between the two, but for the most part, the thaw was well underway. It was time to move on and set old rivalries aside.
The Lakers retired O’Neal’s jersey in 2013 and a statue of the big man will be unveiled outside of the STAPLES Center sometime this season. Looking back now, that’s how it should be. We celebrate the good and forgive what we can. Life’s just more enjoyable that way.
Now, as O’Neal prepares to be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Allen Iverson and Yao Ming, things have truly come full circle. The old wounds have scabbed over and disappeared, leaving only the wonderful memories of the time when the most dominant athlete in the game electrified Los Angeles.