HANG TIME WEST – It’s too bad Dr. Jerry Buss will not be at Staples Center tonight because this is about his emotions and vision as well, the way he knew when it was time to dump Shaquille O’Neal, when it was time to let go of the unfortunate past and when it was time to figuratively bring Shaq back into the fold. The good news is that it is a safe bet O’Neal will mention Buss in a kind way, and so the Lakers owner who passed in February actually will be there.
It has been an automatic for years — no matter how many wanted to suggest doubt after an ugly breakup — that the Lakers would retire jersey No. 34 in tribute to O’Neal. That it is happening late in this of all seasons, Tuesday as the Lakers face the Mavericks in a game with implications for the bottom of the Western Conference playoff pack, is just how things worked out in a strange way: The relationship with Kobe Bryant has gone from setting fire to the locker room all the way to friendly, Mike D’Antoni, briefly Shaq’s coach in Phoenix, now has the Lakers job, and the organization desperately needs the positive vibes of Junes past. All unexpected developments, all making this particularly special.
And there were good times. No, there were great times. O’Neal and Bryant feuded at historic levels – it could be argued that their egos at 40 paces hastened the retirement of Jerry West, exhausted by, among other things, years of having to be Switzerland – and it is no stretch to suggest championship opportunities were missed because the tension overtook the winning. O’Neal showed up Buss by screaming at the owner for a fat extension and increasingly showed less of a commitment to staying in shape. But that team was a thunderclap of talent and unapologetic arrogance.
This is the first of many public commemorations of a special group, to be followed by Bryant having No. 8 or No. 24 (or both) retired, probably the only other member of that team that will get the honor, and O’Neal entering the Hall of Fame in 2017. (Phil Jackson reached Springfield, Mass., in 2007 partly on the strength of his L.A. titles, but would have gotten there anyway just from the Chicago success.) The only way that likely changes, barring a switch to the current way of thinking, is if another player makes the Hall and therefore automatically gets a jersey on the wall, as was the case with Gail Goodrich and more recently Jamaal Wilkes. Their numbers would not have been retired otherwise.
For now, in one of the many watched subplots around the Lakers, it is O’Neal for the next jersey, Bryant as the only certainty after that, and the expectation of Elgin Baylor as the next statue outside Staples Center, as previously reported. That will be some center lineage on the wall, too – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Wilt Chamberlain (13), O’Neal (34), plus a mention of George Mikan from the Minneapolis days.
“It takes really good fortune,” West said of the Lakers’ history of acquiring superstar centers. “When things are going great, everybody always praises you about how smart you are and how good you are. It takes a tremendous amount of good fortune to be able to build a team and to acquire players like that. This game is changing greatly because we don’t have as many really good big men as we’ve had before. You look at teams, they have changed. Players 6-5 to 6-9 are all so versatile. We really don’t have a lot of conventional centers today. Shaquille O’Neal, frankly, was probably the last of those. He was just one of those unbelievable players. I couldn’t be more thrilled. He was one of my favorite Laker players of all-time. He was a great guy. Thankfully for us, he chose us instead of going back to Orlando. I knew for all of us in Los Angeles, we knew what we were going to get. And we got a lot as a player, a lot as a personality and we won a few championships with him, which was always the icing on the cake.”
Buss could have stopped tonight from happening with an edict years ago, but rightfully chose not to, wanting to honor someone who meant a great deal to the organization rather than dwelling on how things ended. Shaq himself knows this better than anyone. In the last days of his career, open to a final season with the Lakers in a backup role (L.A. had no interest), he understood the real fence-mending was with Buss, not Bryant. That probably makes this honor extra special. With some franchises, it might not have happened.
O’Neal had such a massive footprint on the Lakers that he was a centerpiece of three championships and had a role in at least one other crown. He was obviously part of Bryant’s drive in 2010, considering how Bryant referenced him so quickly, and not in a pleasant way, after the Game 7 win over the Celtics. Even the bad times were good times. That was some connection and this is some special night.