April 04, 2013
By Kenneth D. Miller
LAWT Assistant Managing Editor
It had been eight years since the last Lakers NBA championship when general manager Jerry West pulled off the coupe of the century in trading for a super star center named Shaquille O’Neal in 1996.
Shaq arrive at the same time West managed another brilliant maneuver in drafting a high school phenom from Lower Marion High School in Philadelphia we recognize today as Kobe Bryant.
Few knew what to expect when O’Neal arrived from Orlando where he managed to lead the Magic to an NBA Final and also lead the league in scoring.
After all many of us had become so spoiled by the five championship reign of Magic Johnson and the million dollar smile that Johnson wore that when he announced he had contracted HIV it was like losing a family member.
So, when O’Neal arrive with an equally wide grin and a jovial personality to boot it was precisely what we needed, but championships are what we really craved. After all this is the Lakers we are talking about, Showtime, big parties and long parades.
When O’Neal got the news that he was traded from the Magic where he won NBA Rookie of the Year during the 1991-’92 season, he thought it was a joke.
He subsequently called Jeanie Buss to confirm what he thought was a rumor and, Jeanie passed the phone to her late father Dr. Jerry Buss, and he confirmed the trade and told him “we’re gonna take care of you big fella.”
Unlike another former Orlando Magic center that nearly mirrors the fate of O’Neal, Shaq embraced coming to Los Angeles and the challenge to follow in the giant footprints left in the sand by Magic.
The Lakers won their first title with O’Neal four years later in 2000 and three NBA championships later and a trio of NBA Finals MVPs, it turned out that O’Neal had actually taken care of the Lakers instead.
There are many African American NBA millionaires who play in areas that sit center of blithe urban neighborhoods, community’s strife with poverty, gangs and drug abuse.
For the most part, many of them rarely frequent those communities, they seldom embrace those communities, they collect their fat NBA paychecks, and reluctantly sign autographs and peddle you over priced sneakers through Nike or one of the other shoe companies.
But, not Shaquille O’Neal. He came to Los Angeles and gave it a big 7-foot-1 bear hug, not just the stars sitting in the courtside seats, but the kids who would not have enjoyed a Christmas gift if it weren’t for him.
And, he didn’t do it for publicity. After all, he was raised by a mother and father who taught him the value of giving back.
He identifies with the kids who didn’t have a father and those who were raised by a step-father, because his biological dad left his home long before he was a two-time All America and National Player of the Year at LSU.
He knew what it was like to have a stepfather who cared for him as if he was his own, thus he respected more than just the game of basketball---he respected life.
If you were to randomly talk to the street hustler on the corner to the gang banger in the ‘hood, you will discover that Shaquille O’Neal was universally respected and loved because he respected them.
It is not easy being a multi-million dollar super star athlete, playing a game dominated by Blacks and other Blacks feeling a belonging to you although they have never met you.
Magic before him, who was reared by two doting parents in Lansing, Michigan, understood that.
The eight years that O’Neal spent here as a player, he also spent here as a member of the Black community.
He didn’t peddle Nike’s and Reeboks, he produced his own shoe the Dunkman with a silhouette of him dunking a basketball and they sold in Pay Less, not the high priced Mall. You could get a pair for less than $40 bucks.
O’Neal gave the Lakers the best eight years of his life, he had matured into a grown man who realized there would be life after the ball stopped bouncing and understood that his legacy was defined by championships on the court.
He dominated while Kobe matured just as he did, and then the Lakers traded him to Miami where he teamed with Dwayne Wade and won another title.
However, it was a trade that hurt O’Neal personally and set the Lakers back. It was one that many thought and still believe was spurned by Kobe which is why he is not a revered as he should be.
Shaq would move on to collect the $100 million contract the Lakers refused to pay from the Heat and at every opportunity would ridicule Kobe and even performed an infamous rap about his former teammate.
He would go on to play with LeBron James in Cleveland, a stop in Phoenix and a last dance with the hated Boston Celtics.
In each of those communities he was bigger off the court than he was on it. His power dunks had began to fade by then. Injuries to his massive frame piled up, limiting him to a bit player.
His personality remained enormous, his smile seldom dimmed and so when he returned for his jersey retirement celebration on Tuesday April 2 it was only right the game against the Mavericks was an after- thought.
Shaq hovered over Staples Center one more time, his No. 34 to be a lasting reminder of his lively personality, the candid jokes, the big rigs of Christmas gifts to the kids in the hood, and oh all those NBA titles.
2 NBA scoring titles
First-team All-NBA selection 8 times
4 NBA Championship teams
3 NBA Finals MVP awards
3 All-Star Game MVP awards
1 of the 50 greatest players in NBA history