During tonight’s crucial Western Conference clash between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers organization retired the #34 jersey worn by Shaquille O’Neal during his historic tenure with the purple and gold. It was a touching moment for both O’Neal and his fans, and seems to represent the final step in bridging the rift between the Lakers and Diesel which was at one stage so large that they dealt him to the Heat to defuse the tensions.
The ceremony opened with a video montage combining the tender off-court mannerisms of the giant prankster with the crushing dunks and game-changing blocks that made him a basketball immortal. The jumbo-tron then showed a pre-recorded message from Kobe Bryant, one-time antagonist and former teammate of Shaq’s; now paying tribute to the big man who he won three titles with earlier in his career. Surely for Shaq there would be no one sweeter to hear such praising words from than the man who once usurped him as top dog in Lakerland.
Shaq’s only coach during the Lakers era, Phil Jackson, was present to make a brief speech about their times together. In his typical quirky, philosophical manner, Jackson reflected on the time spent with the 2000 NBA MVP. Following Jackson’s speech, Jeanie Buss introduced the unveiling as a representative of her family, more specifically her late father, who had a close relationship with O’Neal during his time in L.A. As the jersey hung and Shaq took the mic, the fans started chanting ‘We want Phil’, referring to the controversial decision to choose Mike D’Antoni as Lakers coach earlier in the season over the much loved Phil Jackson. Reggie Miller later reported during the third quarter on TNT’s broadcast that Kobe Bryant brought the team’s attention back to second half strategy to deflect attention from Mike D’Antoni in the undoubtedly embarrassing and awkward situation.
Finally, the big man gave some words. Opening with a thunderous call of ‘Can you dig it?!’ , it was clear the entertainer in Shaq had clearly outlasted the now retired basketballer in him. During the speech, the fifteen-time All-Star thanked the fans, his coaches (specifically Jackson), his family and in a classy move, singled out the contributions of the Buss family and paid tribute to the late owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
With all wounds healed and a giant #34 adorning the wall of Staples Center next to Magic Johnson’s famous #32, the Los Angeles Lakers can happily write the last page of the most recently completed chapter in their large book of historic franchise Centers. Despite the bitter trade in 2004 souring the bond between the Lakers/Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, growth and maturity from both parties have helped repair the relationships. Thankfully, the legendary contributions made by one of the game’s greatest have finally been able to be formally acknowledged and O’Neal’s jersey is hanging where it belongs alongside his fellow Laker champions.
Check out a video of the ceremony below.