I still remember watching the press conference and not really believing what I was seeing. There was Jerry West standing next to a 24 year old and in his prime Shaquille O’Neal, posing for pictures after announcing he had signed with the Lakers. The entire thing seemed surreal.
Before Kobe was Kobe, Shaq was the savior. The Lakers had recovered from the Magic Johnson HIV announcement 4 years prior to build a winning team. They saw their win totals rise from 33 to 43 to 53 the three previous seasons to his arrival and then West, in all his mastery, carved out cap space and opened up the starting C spot (by trading Vlade to the Hornets for the rights to Kobe) to make his run at Shaq. After finally getting the game’s best young big man to sign on the dotted line, West almost looked more relieved than happy. He knew the Lakers were really back.
It took some time for things to settle in just right, though. Good but not great regular seasons turned into good but not great playoff runs. I know regular season win totals in the high 50’s and low 60’s and playoff runs to the Conference Semis and Conference Finals are nothing to scoff at, but the Lakers brought in Shaq to make a return to the championship glory not to have their season(s) end in post season sweep(s) as they did in ’98 and again in ’99.
Then, as you know, Phil Jackson came on board, Kobe became Kobe, and the rest is history.
But Shaq was the catalyst to that history. I will always give Kobe his credit for his massive contributions to the early aughts 3-peat — the 4th Q and OT game vs. Indy on a sprained ankle, the massive road performances against the Spurs and Kings, the overall and all-court brilliance against…well, everyone. But the Lakers were Shaq’s team. He was as unstoppable a player as I’ve ever seen. A giant with quick feet, a brute with a soft touch, a blunt force object with deceptive counters. He ran roughshod over a league ill-equipped to deal with such a player and carried home the hardware as proof.
And today, the Lakers will celebrate his career in the forum blue and gold by raising a Shaqtue, as I’m sure he would call it. The pose will be a familiar one, with the man called The Diesel dunking the ball home with two hands, legs raised up to emphasize the dominance.
There was no one like him either on or off the court. And while his time in Los Angeles didn’t end as well as it should have, amends have been made and the past can now be reflected on and given it’s proper due. Shaq was a Laker great and today we celebrate that with him. Thanks for the memories, big fella.