LOS ANGELES — The self-proclaimed Most Dominant Ever returned to the site of his peak dominance, flanked by a cast of basketball royalty so large that a horde of handlers struggled to get everyone to squeeze into a single picture frame. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, James Worthy, Luke Walton, A.C. Green, Gary Payton, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw and more than a dozen other notable former Lakers assembled outside the Staples Center on Friday to honor Shaquille O’Neal, who teamed with Bryant to bring three consecutive championships to Southern California from 2000 to 2002.
Officially, the group of luminaries, and the hundreds of fans decked out in purple and gold, were there to witness the unveiling of a gigantic 1,500-pound statue that is suspended above the Staples Center walkway, not far from similar tributes to Abdul-Jabbar, West and Magic Johnson. Unofficially, everyone was glad to take a moment out from another discouraging Lakers campaign to reminisce on better days.
O’Neal, decked out in a light blue and yellow suit, delighted in the familiar company, offering individual messages to everyone from Bryant to Fisher to Slava Medvedenko. He stood up to thank Abdul-Jabbar, who recalled Michelangelo and the Lincoln Memorial as he ran through the 30,000-year history of statues, and laughed as Jackson told yarns about O’Neal’s love for jet skis and rapping. When the curtain dropped, revealing a bronze statue depicting him forcefully dunking the ball and swinging on the rim, O’Neal’s eyes lit up with the child-like glee that helped make him, for a time, the biggest star in basketball.
“Here’s a guy who played with a lot of force, a guy who wanted the crowd to go crazy,” O’Neal told a small group of reporters after the ceremony, when asked to describe what the statue represents. “There’s two things that made a crowd go crazy: a deep, contested three and a dunk. I always tried to dunk to intimidate my opponents and to make the crowd go crazy.”
The crowd—which milled around “Shaqtown,” an LA Live street that was converted into a playhouse with a Ferris wheel and plenty of Shaq-related signage—was treated to a family reunion rather than a fireworks display. O’Neal and Bryant, whose 2004 divorce shaped basketball history nearly as much as their eight seasons together, shared laughs and pleasantries. Abdul-Jabbar was alone in poking at their issues, and he did so in jest. "Some people thought the odds of Kobe Bryant showing up today were the same as Shaq hitting a free throw," the NBA’s all-time leading scorer said, earning chuckles before quickly moving on.
O’Neal called Bryant “brother” and emphasized their mutual respect, noting that Bryant was next up for a statue tribute. He did mention their “battles,” and later told reporters that the pair will be remembered as “the most enigmatic, controversial, dominant one-two punch ever created,” but he was wholly uninterested in re-airing dirty laundry. He kept the focus on the three titles they won, rather than the titles they could have won, and pointed to Bryant’s alley-oop pass in Game 7 of the 2000 West finals against the Blazers as his favorite Lakers memory.
“When I first got here in 1996, we always won 50, 55, 60 games, but we never got over the hump,” O’Neal said. “Then we got there, Game 7, and [Portland] got out to a big lead and we thought it was happening again. But we made that historical comeback, Kobe crosses Scottie Pippen and throws the lob, and I sealed it.”
In a brief statement, Bryant returned the compliments and opted against mentioning his 5-to-4 edge in championship rings. Indeed, he even pushed back against the long-standing assumption that he took issue with O’Neal’s lighthearted personality and approach to the game.
“Before tip-off, something happens, the switch goes off for him,” Bryant said. “He’s no longer joking around, he’s no longer playing around, he’s not smiling. He’s out there trying to dominate. I remember the playoffs in San Antonio. We were going into the arena. He and I were sitting next to each other and he leans over to me. ‘Bring it to me early.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘When I was a kid, David Robinson wasn’t very nice to me.’ I said, ‘Say no more. This series is in the bag.’”
Although he steered clear of regrets and second thoughts at his celebration, O’Neal isn’t completely satisfied with his impressive list of accomplishments, which includes four titles, three Finals MVP awards, the 2000 MVP, 15 All-Star selections and the No. 7 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Like Lakers fans, who are left pondering how many more titles O’Neal and Bryant could have won together had they avoided personality conflicts, O’Neal looks back on some of his individual achievements and feels short-changed.
“LeBron [James] and myself are similar,” O’Neal told SI.com earlier this month in Atlanta. “We could be MVP every year. But [the voters] don’t give it every year and he’s already got four. [I should have won] three, easily. Kobe should have won three, too. [I should have won] the two that Steve Nash got over me. It pisses me off. [Nash] knows.”
For the record, O’Neal retired in 2011 with five top-three MVP finishes, eight top-five finishes and 13 top-10 finishes. He was runner-up to Robinson in 1995, runner-up to Nash in 2005, and injured for a good chunk of the 2006 season when Nash won his second MVP. Even O’Neal’s sole MVP win remains a sore spot, though, as he was one vote shy of becoming the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. Warriors guard Stephen Curry claimed that honor last year.
“The one where that crazy dummy Fred Hickman f---ed up my historical [unanimous MVP] so now Curry gets the first unanimous,” O’Neal said. “That bothers me a lot.”
O’Neal, now a commentator at TNT, admitted to reporters Friday that he “definitely misses playing.” With his Hall of Fame induction complete, his No. 34 jersey hanging in the Staples Center rafters, and now his statue out front, O’Neal’s legendary status is secure. But the competitive spirit that drove him to punish Robinson and the Spurs, to prove to Abdul-Jabbar that he was a champion, and to butt heads with Bryant continues to seep through. Beneath the jokes and pranks, O’Neal still wants his due.
“What also bothers me that I missed 250 games because I would have been at 33,000 points,” O’Neal told SI.com earlier this month. “I just got passed up by Dirk [Nowitzki] and LeBron is about to pass me too. Forget the free throws, I missed like three seasons worth of games.”
Although his point is well-taken—he didn’t play in more than 20% of his teams’ possible games during his 19-year career—the specific mention of 33,000 points is curious.
These Lakers greats—Shaq, Kobe, Kareem, Magic, Phil and Jerry—have all been so famous and so successful for so long that there’s no telling which old wounds and grudges still linger. Honestly, it’s getting hard to keep up with the soap opera. Jackson, for example, shared the stage with Lakers executive Jeanie Buss a few months after their long engagement was called off. The Hall of Fame coach also stood near Fisher, whom he fired last year as coach of the Knicks. Jim Buss, the recently-deposed Lakers executive who is now engaged in a legal fight with Jeanie over the future of the team, was conspicuously absent. Appropriately, much was left unsaid at the unveiling.
Only West, the Hall of Fame player turned longtime executive who brought O’Neal to LA on a seven-year, $120 million contract in 1996, momentarily interrupted the feel-good afternoon with a lament about what could have been. “[The day you were traded to the Heat] was a real sad day for me,” he recalled, addressing O’Neal. “I always thought you would end your career with the Lakers, but sometimes that doesn’t happen in the NBA.”
There was no need to belabor the point, and West didn’t. Best not to go too far digging up buried hatchets. But here was the necessary acknowledgment that O’Neal had been denied a storybook ending.
As O’Neal’s statue hangs, satisfying selfies for years to come, so too does West’s alternate history. The one in which O’Neal avoids his late-career tour through Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston. The one in which he and Bryant kept delighting Lakers fans by trading punishing dunks and deep, contested threes. The one in which he rides into the sunset down Sunset with five, six or seven championships to his name.