With news coming out that the Lakers will retire Shaq’s jersey, the Diesel will live on forever as one of the Laker immortals. He’ll join Magic, Kareem, the Logo, Baylor, Wilt, Worthy, and Goodrich as one of the all-timers that Laker fans have been lucky enough to call their own at some point in their historic careers. It’s truly and honor to join those hall of famers in the rafters of Staples, but Shaq has earned that right. The three championships he helped deliver were more than enough.
And while some would rather focus on the way he left the organization, the fact that he may not have been as committed to his conditioning during his time with the team, or how he joined the Celtics for one last run, I won’t be one of those guys. Hindsight tells me that in the bigger picture, those things really don’t matter as much as all the good times; as all the winning.
The most persisting memory for most is likely the alley-oop that Shaq caught from Kobe Bryant in the western conference finals that capped that fantastic comeback that propelled the team to the Finals and, ultimately, the NBA championship that season. Over at Pro Basketball Talk, our old friend Kurt recalls that game too as he was there to see it in person:
I lucked into tickets for Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Someone I worked with at the time was a Lakers season ticket holder and had playoff tickets, but he had to fly back to England for his sister’s wedding and so he had to sell his Game 7 seats (well before anyone knew there would be a Game 7).
As a Lakers fan, with obnoxious Blazers fans right behind me, there was nothing like that game. The lows of missed shots. The highs of the comeback (which was fueled by so many Blazer misses of shots they had not missed for six and three quarters games).
Then the ally-oop.
And the explosion of noise in Staples Center. A building where now everyone was hugging and high-fiving everyone, whether you knew them or not. You were now there with your 19,000 best friends. Los Angeles is not like that, you don’t talk to your neighbors, or the guy in the next seat. But on this day we all knew we were witnessing one of the best sports moments of our lives. Los Angeles felt like a family.
Shaq did that. I’m going to miss him for all of it.
More than that game or even that play, the reason why that memory lives with me the most is the feeling that it embedded in me for the rest of Shaq’s career with the Lakers (and ultimately for most of the rest of his non-Laker career too).
From that point forward, I felt that anything was possible and that the Lakers could win any game that they played. No deficit was ever too big; no game was ever out of reach. When the Lakers went into the playoffs, I always felt that they would win. It’s what made the losses in 2003 to the Spurs and in 2004 to the Pistons so hard, but also what made rooting for the team so fun during that period. Shaq and his partnership with Kobe made the Lakers a juggernaut and I always felt that in a 7 game series, their talent would win out.
Those teams were special and as much as Kobe played a vital and crucial role on those teams (they don’t win without Kobe, and probably don’t win with any other of the great wings of that era in his place), Shaq was the catalyst on those teams. It doesn’t diminish Kobe’s value – those teams needed both players – but it also speaks to the value of a Shaq in peak form. With that man playing for the team that you rooted for, a championship was in play. Only a few players a generation create that aura and he was one of them. And for that I was, and remain, eternally grateful.
I understand that things weren’t always perfect. And part of me will always wish things wouldn’t have deteriorated the way that they did so the Lakers would have had a chance to continue to compete for championships with Kobe and Shaq playing together. But looking back, things worked out well for both players. Shaq got his title in Miami and the Lakers have won 2 more titles (and are in the hunt for more) with a team built around Kobe.
But my memories of those teams will be with me forever and Shaq was a key part of that. We’ve been saying goodbye to the big fella for several days now but today I say it one more time. The memories are just too strong for me not to.