As he stood at a lectern on the Staples Center court, Shaquille O’Neal unleashed a phrase that harkened back memories of countless championship parades.
“Can you dig it?!?” O’Neal repeated.
Lakers fans did.
When the Lakers unveiled O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey in the Staples Center rafters at halftime Tuesday, the moment brought 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 those of 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.”
O’Neal became the ninth Laker to have to have his jersey retired, including Magic Johnson (No. 32), Abdul-Jabbar (33), West (44), Elgin Baylor (22), Wilt Chamberlain (13), Gail Goodrich (25), James Worthy (42) and Jamaal Wilkes (52).
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.
“Congratulations to you, the most gifted physical specimen I’ve seen play this game,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said in a taped message. “What you’ve done to this city and meant to this city has been absolutely historical with the run we had together.”
With countless “We Want Phil” chants serenading Staples Center, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson mused about O’Neal arriving to a practice late only wearing shoes. Lakers executive vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss said an informal fan poll mostly described O’Neal as a “champion” and a “Laker.”
The Lakers immediately announced they would retire O’Neal’s jersey when he formally retired in May 2011, capping 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).
“It’s a great night for me and my family, but I wish the great Jerry Buss was here,” O’Neal said of the Lakers owner who died last month from cancer. “Because of him, this is happening this early in my retirement. I can’t thank him enough.”
Not everything went smoothly.
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 yelled out to Jerry Buss to “pay me.” The Lakers eventually traded O’Neal in 2004 to Miami.
O’Neal regrets his various injuries and missed free throws. He doesn’t regret how everything played out despite conceding he left NBA titles on the table.
He downplayed any rift with Jerry Buss.
“It was sort of my style that every time I left, I had words to say for some marketing ploy,” said O’Neal, who attended his tribute with his mom, Lucille, and his children. “After my comments, I had a 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.”
“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.”
O’Neal didn’t thank any teammates, including Bryant, though he credited them beforehand.
“I’ve always been a humble person,” O’Neal said. “I definitely didn’t do it by myself. I had a lot of help.”
O’Neal reiterated his wish that Jerry Buss “could be here to celebrate this joyous night with us.” He expressed gratitude to West for taking a “gamble” by bringing him to the Lakers. O’Neal credited Jackson for “taking him to the next level,” before joking he read the Cliff Notes version of all the books he handed out to him over the years. When the “We want Phil” chants increased in volume, O’Neal responded, “I want Phil, too.”
O’Neal then thanked various celebrities that attend Lakers games, including Jack Nicholson, Adam Sandler and Jimmy Goldstein.
“I did most of my damage here and won most of my championships here,” O’Neal said. “Most of my fun was here.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org