Once the Lakers unveil Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey hanging on the Staples Center rafters, the moment will bring the four-time NBA champion and fifth all-time leading scorer full circle.
When the Lakers signed O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million deal in 1996, former General Manager Jerry West offered this prediction to O’Neal when he scanned the Fabulous Forum eying various retired jerseys, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.
“He told me to look up [at the rafters] and said, ‘If you do things the right way son, you can be as good as these guys,” O’Neal recalled. “I didn’t believe him at first. But I turned into a dominant player and did some remarkable things.”
He sure did.
O’Neal will become the ninth Laker to have to have their jersey retired during a halftime ceremony of tonight’s game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. O’Neal’s induction will put him in an esteemed class of Lakers, including including Magic Johnson (No. 32), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Jerry West (44), Elgin Baylor (22) Wilt Chamberlain (13), Gail Goodrich (25), James Worthy (42) and Jamaal Wilkes (52).
Kobe Bryant will speak in a taped message. Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Lakers executive vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss will also share some words. Before all of that, the Lakers will feature a highlight video showcasing how O’Neal won three of his four NBA championships with the Lakers , averaging 27 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks in eight seasons.
O’Neal will be with his family, including his mother, Lucille.
The Lakers immediately announced they would retire O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey when he announced his retirement following a 19-year career that included stops with the Orlando Magic (1992-96), Lakers (1996-2004), Miami Heat (2004-08), Phoenix Suns (2007-09), Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-10) and Boston Celtics (2010-11).
O’Neal, who considered providing a video tribute, sounded bittersweet considering his ceremony happens over a month after Lakers owner Jerry Buss died at age 80 because of an unspecified form of cancer.
“It’s a great night for me and my family, but I wish the great Jerry Buss was here,” O’Neal said. “Usually this process takes a long time. Because of him, this is happening this early in my retirement I can’t thank him enough, I wish he was here to celebrate this joyous occasion tonight.”
Not everything went smoothly, though.
Bryant and O’Neal openly bickered. O’Neal disliked Bryant’s shooting tendencies. Bryant couldn’t stand O’Neal’s conditioning. Once, in the middle of a preseason game, O’Neal famously yelled out to Jerry Buss to “pay me.” The Lakers eventually traded O’Neal in 2004 to Miami.
Yet, O’Neal maintains he only regrets his various injuries and missed free throws. He doesn’t how everything has played out even if he conceded he left NBA titles on the table.
He downplayed any rift with Buss despite taking swipes at his preference for hanging out with twentysomethings.
“It was sort of my style that every time I left, I had words to say for some marketing ploy with what was going to happen next year for the game,” O’Neal said. After my comments, I had conversation right away. Me and Jeanie Buss have been very good.”
O’Neal also said his playing time with Bryant entailed “a million good times and a thousand bad times.”
“It was time to grow up and you get older and get tired of talking about it,” O’Neal said. “I wish you guys would talk about how we were the most dominant one-two punch ever created. That’s what I would like to read. That’s what I know when we were here. We’re still talking about this so- called beef we had. We had some arguments and that’s beef? I know all you have brothers and sisters that argue. But I still loved him as a teammate.”
Bryant expressed similar gestures, saying they have “a very very good relationship” after the Lakers’ win Feb. 12 over the Phoenix Suns. Before the game, they smiled and laughed together.
Even after his various stints, O’Neal considers this place home.
“I did most of my damage here and won most of my championships here,” O’Neal said. Most of my fun was here.”