Shaquille O'Neal's retirement brings reflections on his legacy with the Lakers
One of the first messages Shaquille O'Neal received from Phil Jackson consisted of both a compliment and a challenge.
"I told Shaq when I took over as head coach in our first initial meeting as a team that the MVP trophy should be named after him when he retired," Jackson recently told Fox Sports' Mark Kriegel.
The message spoke both to Shaq's nearly unstoppable stature. His 7-foot-1, 325- pound frame provided a physical presence that proved difficult to stop inside. His agility made it hard to slow him down. And on the heels of Shaq officially announcing Wednesday his retirement via Tout, he'll be remembered as one of the most dominant centers in the game.
But Jackson also shared that anecdote as evidence that despite his four rings, three-time Finals MVP, one regular season MVP and 28,596 career points, the man with a million nicknames grossly underachieved. “This is a guy who could and should have been the MVP player for 10 consecutive seasons,” Jackson told Kriegel.
Laker fans are appropriately measuring the conflicted feelings they have about The Big Aristotle, Shaq Diesel, the Big Fella or whatever nickname you want to call him. They appreciate how his arrival in 1996 from the Orlando Magic breathed life into an organization that floundered since the Showtime Era and paved the way to three consecutive NBA championships from 2000-2002. They remain impressed with how O'Neal became one of three players in NBA history to be named regular-season MVP, All-Star MVP Finals MVP in 2000. And they marvel at the 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks he provided in 15 Finals games, with most of them coming with the Lakers.
Yet, they express similar frustrations Derek Fisher shared with The Times' NBA columnist Mark Heisler in his book Madmen's Ball on how that legacy could've been greater had there been no Shaq-Kobe Bryant, Shaq-Jackson and Jackson-Bryant infighting: "Not being able at any point to stop and recognize how good we had it and the fact that you're currently playing on maybe the most dominant team in basketball in the last five to 10 years which could become the most dominant team if you work it out and stick together ... We kind of squandered it away."
Fans loved Shaq's thunderous dunks and amazing physical presence. Lakers center Andrew Bynum, for one, tweeted, "I still remember him putting that big elbow in my chest when I was a rookie! One of the greatest to ever play the game. MUCH RESPECT BIG @SHAQ." But some grew frustrated when he reported to training camp either hurt or out of shape: Bryant questioned his work ethic. Shaq famously arrived to 2002 training camp with a hurt toe and said, "I got hurt on company time so I'll heal on company time. And Jackson once quoted Tex Winter in his book, "The Last Season" that he wanted to "expose this guy as overrated." Fans loved his endlessly memorable quotes, such as his "Can you dig it" chant, his swipes at the "Sacramento Queens" or his frequent chastising of Bill Walton. Lakers forward Ron Artest, for one, tweeted, "Shaq Legend Hang up the jersey in Orlando Miami and LA Congrats shaq You Been a big brother since day one Now Not too many donuts!!" But many abhored Shaq's frequent potshots at Bryant after the Lakers traded him in 2004 to the Miami Heat. No one forgets the three titles Shaq proved largely instrumental in bringing, but it becomes more and more of a distant memory after making jumps to the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.
Still, it'd be wrong to equate all those mixed feelings and argue Shaq doesn't deserve his jersey to be hung on the rafters or have a statue outside Staples Center. Even if Shaq's trade helped give the Lakers additional pieces for two more titles in 2009 and 2010, that doesn't erase the three titles he proved largely instrumental in winning. Even if the Shaq-Kobe spat proved unnecessary and tiresome, that doesn't erase them as being the game's "most dominant duo," as O'Neal recently argued. And even if he had fallen in the good graces of some Laker fans and on the team itself, it wasn't enough to stop the organization from inviting O'Neal to Jerry West's statue unveiling.
O'Neal may not have provided the amount of MVP's Jackson thought he could obtain. The Lakers' title runs may have come to a premature halt. And Shaq's post-career with the Lakers may sour the fun memories Laker fans had when he wore purple and gold. But the legacy he left with the Lakers as one of the game's most dominant centers, bringing them three NBA titles and providing plenty of entertainment value still remains impressive enough.
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Photo: Even Shaquille ONeal seemed amazed after a lob from Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Trail Blazers. Credit: Paul Morse / Los Angeles Times / June 12, 2009