Shaquille O’Neal And The Art Of The Not-So-Happy Ending

The Los Angeles Lakers announced last week they will be honoring Shaquille O’Neal with a jersey retirement ceremony.  The ceremony will take place during halftime of the team’s April 2nd game against the Dallas Mavericks.

In his eight seasons with the Lakers, Shaq led the team to three consecutive championships, was named to six All-NBA First Teams and was named league MVP in 2000. There’s no doubt Shaq deserves to have his No. 34 retired. When you analyze stats and number of championships won while playing for the Lakers, it’s hard to argue against Shaq being the second best center in franchise history, right behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The announcement of Shaq having his jersey retired reminds us all how much he meant to the franchise. But at the same time, fans might not get all warm and fuzzy when they think of Shaq as much as they do with other former players who have had their jerseys retired. This is likely because Shaq did not have a happy ending to his career with the Lakers.

Unlike other former Lakers who have had their number lifted to the rafters, Shaq’s career extended past his days with the Lakers. After leaving Los Angeles, Shaq played for four other teams and ended his career with the Boston Celtics. Of all the players who currently have had their jerseys retired by the team, only Gail Goodrich didn’t retire as a member of the Lakers.

Not only did Shaq not retire as a member of the Lakers, giving fans a lasting memory of him wearing a Lakers uniform, but he also left the team on bad terms. After the Lakers came up short against the Pistons in the ’04 Finals, Mitch Kupchak and Jerry Buss didn’t give Shaq a contract extension, instead deciding to focus on building around the younger Kobe Bryant.

The lack of a contract extension, accompanied with him being upset about the departure of Phil Jackson as head coach, led to Shaq being traded to the Miami Heat before the 2004-05 season.

Of course it wasn’t just the ending to Shaq’s stint in Los Angeles that was a little messy. Who can forget his famous feud with Kobe? The two argued over everything, ranging from who was getting more shots, to Kobe’s sexual assault court case in 2003.

Their barb-exchanging bouts through the media were almost as epic as the three championships the duo won playing together.

The Big Diesel had a hard time letting his feud with Kobe die. After Boston defeated the Lakers in the ’08 Finals, a video leaked of Shaq rapping about Kobe not being able to win a championship without him.

Shaq’s physical conditioning and motivation were also questioned throughout his career. There were times when O’Neal’s motivation and conditioning were questioned by fans and media.

It’s hard to prove those arguments being right or wrong. But it’s worth pointing out that Shaq never once played an entire slate of regular season games, and he never led the league in rebounding, even in his eight years with the Lakers, when he was in the prime of his career.

Unless maybe your first name is Tim and your last name is Duncan, it’s unrealistic to play your entire career with one franchise and never have a feud with a teammate, coach or team executive. So I don’t mean to point out Shaq as the only superstar, or Lakers superstar for that matter, who has had moments he is not proud of.

Magic Johnson had his problems with Coach Paul Westhead in the early 80s and demanded a trade. Kobe had his aforementioned feud with Shaq and demanded a trade in ‘07. These shortcomings were soon forgotten, however, given what both have/will accomplish as lifelong Lakers (Yes, I am making a “bold” prediction Kobe will play his entire career with the Lakers).

It was somewhat out of Shaq’s control as to whether he played his entire career with the Lakers, and in today’s NBA, maybe a little far-fetched to ever think he would. If he could have somehow left on better terms, there would likely be more positive associations when people think of Shaq and the Lakers.

In a few short months, Shaq’s jersey will rightfully stand next to the other retired uniforms worn by former Laker greats. Is it possible when fans see Shaq’s jersey their thoughts will be filled with more “What ifs” and “yeah buts” than “I remember whens?” Very likely. After all, a great Hollywood ending can make a huge difference.

In case you missed it – we welcome Dwight Howard to L.A. at his introductory press conference:

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