By now, you know J.M. Poulard as he’s been putting together great posts for FB&G over the past few months. So, I’m happy to announce that he’ll be joining FB&G on a more permanent basis moving forward. Join me in welcoming him on board and enjoy his latest effort…
Back when Shaquille O’Neal played for the Orlando Magic, it seemed that the team would be a perennial contender in the Eastern Conference for years to come. The Magic were built around the tandem of Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and that squad had taken out Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals on their way to the Finals. The future definitely looked bright for Orlando.
Around the time that the Magic was on the rise, a young teenager once made his way into the Orlando locker room because he wanted to meet his favorite player at the time, which was Penny. Hardaway rushed the young teenager and took take a picture with him and then went on his way. O’Neal saw all of this unfold and offered words of encouragement to the kid because although Penny had taken the picture, he had brushed off the young fan. Shaq went on to talk to the teen asked him where he was from and what have you. In his autobiography Shaq Talks Back, the Diesel shares the last few words he had with the young fan:
“Nice to meet you dog. See you in the NBA.”
The name of that young fan? Kobe Bean Bryant.
Little did O’Neal know, he was paving the way to his first title with that small interaction.
Fast forward to the summer of 1996; Shaquille O’Neal is a free agent and it seems clear to everyone that he will remain in Orlando given the fact that the team is a powerhouse in the making that will own the Eastern Conference for years to come despite having just been swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Mind you, Jerry West is not convinced that the Diesel cannot be lured away. Consequently, he dismantles his team in order to have the required cap room to sign O’Neal outright.
The move would be known as perhaps the greatest free agent acquisition in Lakers history, however in order for it to manifest, two things needed to happen:
I. Resentment of Orlando media: Shaq had grown tired of being in Orlando and facing scrutiny for everything he did off the court. For instance, the local press constantly stated that he lacked dedication to basketball because of his music and movies; and they also made it seem as though the woman who bore O’Neal’s first son was a less than respectable lady.
II. Fallout with Orlando management: Shaq made his decision to leave the Magic the day they informed him that they could not give him a contract exceeding the amount of money that Penny was making because he was sensitive and it could potentially make him uncomfortable. Upon receiving the news, O’Neal told the Magic he would sign with them the following day (which clearly he knew he would not) but he then informed Jerry West that he was coming to Los Angeles.
Once the word got out that the Lakers were about to get Shaq for $98 million, Orlando quickly offered to match the contract offer (funny how Penny’s feelings were no longer important once they realized that O’Neal was set on leaving). In the meantime, Alonzo Mourning had just obtained a $110 contract from the Miami Heat and Shaq felt that he was the better player and thus wanted to be compensated more. West stepped up to the plate and offered the Diesel a monster $121 million contract that the star center signed. Tough luck Orlando.
In that very same summer, West made one of the best draft day trades in the history of the NBA when he acquired the rights to Kobe Bryant in exchange for Vlade Divac.
Then and there, a championship team was slowly starting to take shape: Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The irony of course is that save for O’Neal and Bryant, none of the players above would win a ring with the Lakers. But before the team reached its lofty expectations, they still needed to experience some growing pains.
Del Harris was the head coach of the Lakers when O’Neal arrived in Los Angeles but there was one big problem with him: the players did not respect him. His practices were often lax and he favored the idea of simply giving the ball to the players and asking them to go out and play instead of working on sound principles and focusing on how to stop opponents. Harris and Van Exel often got into shouting matches during practices during which Harris (yes Del Harris) once lambasted the former Cincinnati guard with more curse words than a Dr. Dre album.
Making matters worse, Harris was intent on having Kobe Bryant earn his playing time by forcing him to integrate his game with that of teammates and also working hard on defense. While the veterans appreciated the gesture, management offered a different opinion. Jerry Buss and Jerry West wanted for the young prodigy to get some playing time in order to grow and mature as a player.
Truth be told, if the team had been successful under Harris, they probably would have kept him on board; but the reality is that the team often underachieved; getting by merely with talent and usually folding against more experience teams in the playoffs (eliminated in five against Jazz in ’97 playoffs, swept by Jazz in ’98 playoffs and swept by Spurs in ’99 playoffs). And so, after a few years of watching the Lake Show become a no show, the team fired Del Harris during the 1998-99 season (lockout year) and gave Kurt Rambis the reigns to the team.
The players had always loved Rambis as an assistant coach but as the head coach they were less appreciative of him given the fact that his attitude towards the team changed. According to O’Neal, Rambis was trying to play a part as opposed to being himself. In addition, feeling the squeeze from management, Rambis gave Bryant the playing time he had always yearned for and let him play through his mistakes and never tried to steer him towards team play (also, Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell were traded to Charlotte for Glen Rice which opened up minutes at the shooting guard spot).
Even when the team held meetings to discuss Kobe’s perceived selfishness, Rambis was quick to come to his defense and mentioned his youth as a reason why players on the team should show more patience.
And thus, when the Lakers were eliminated at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals, the first thing Shaq made known was that he wanted his type of head coach. He gave the Lakers a list of three head coaches:
1. Chuck Daly
2. Bob Hill
3. Phil Jackson
The Lakers went with Jackson who brought along with him instant respect as well as an attitude that was almost defiant towards the players. O’Neal shared one of the first few things that Jackson shared with the team upon joining them:
“Listen, if Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen didn’t have egos, didn’t talk back to me, none of you guys should ever say sh** to me. Period.”
The team started off the season with Kobe Bryant sitting out the first few weeks because of a wrist injury. The team played well nonetheless and raced out to a 12-3 record. Prior to Kobe returning to the lineup, the head coach advised his star center that when the star guard would come back into the rotation, he would take a wait and see approach with him. He would occasionally get on him, but would allow him to play his game and then try to gradually bring him into the fold.
Jackson understood that there would be no changing Bryant, but rather that he should embrace his game and then have him make some adjustments. At times, Phil had to show Kobe’s mistakes during video sessions in front of the team in order for him to get the message but there were still occasions where Bryant needed to have the spotlight on him. For instance, in December 1999 the Lakers traveled to Toronto to face Vince Carter and the Raptors and Bryant made sure that everyone knew that he was going to go after the player dubbed Air Canada and he did, putting up 26 points in a 94-88 win.
The turning point in the team’s season came on March 6th, 2000 when the Lakers faced off against the Clippers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an assistant coach for the Clippers and had been critical of O’Neal’s game heading into the match up which already had the Diesel poised to have a good game. But what truly infuriated the center was the fact that it was his birthday and the Clippers had refused to provide him with additional tickets.
With Abdul-Jabbar giving the Clippers big men tips on how to guard O’Neal, the Lakers star center had a field day in attacking every single one of them. But the night was important for other reasons as Shaq explains:
“Kobe is giving it up and I keep scoring. Now I’m at 59 points and Kobe penetrates and people think he ain’t gonna get it to me. What does he do? He doesn’t even think twice. Feeds me for m 61st point, the most I ever scored in an NBA game. On my birthday too.
“My plan was if I get 61, I was gonna come down and shoot the three. So I get it, and the crowd is going crazy. I’m dribbling across half court and I stop. I look at the basket, but I see Kobe breaking toward the rim. So I throw him a lob. He catches it, cocks it back, throws down a reverse alley-oop dunk. That was my way of showing Kobe, ‘Thanks for helping me get 61. This one’s for you.’
“Once we did that together, we were tight. We bonded that night.”
And just like that, a title team had finally emerged. The playoffs were still a month and half away, but the chemistry, trust and belief was there. Thus, the Lakers made it into the postseason and eliminated the Sacramento Kings in five games (the first round was decided with three wins at the time), the Phoenix Suns in five games and had to play the Portland Trail Blazers in a tough seven-game series for the ages.
Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals was played at the Staples Center and Portland was up by 15 points early in the fourth quarter. The same trust, belief and chemistry that the team had acquired in early March surfaced then and there as the Lakers came back to take the lead and punctuated the victory with the signature play of the Shaq and Kobe era: the Kobe to Shaq alley-oop (this might be one of the most significant and demoralizing plays in NBA history for an opponent and yet the video fails to grasp that. Unless you watched the game live, unfortunately its significance is easily lost on you).
The Lakers would go on to the NBA Finals to defeat the Indiana Pacers in six games with Shaquille O’Neal being named the Finals MVP. The long trip the team took during the 1999-2000 season helped the team win two more titles; but it also helped turn Kobe Bryant into the superstar he is today.
In order for dynasties to exist in the NBA, more often than not a team needs to have the perfect set of circumstances come together; like an all world center reaching his prime just as his younger star teammate begins to not only reach his potential, but surpass it thanks in large part to the perfect coach.
And yet, the irony of it all is that it all started with a meeting in an Orlando locker room some years before…