In 2004, eight years after signing with the team, Shaquille O’Neal was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers after Kobe Bryant won a power struggle that also resulted in Phil Jackson leaving after an embarrassing NBA Finals defeat. Bryant then flirted with signing with both the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls before deigning to re-sign with a Laker team that would miss the playoffs the next season. It was a tumultuous, drama-filled era, more or less unseen until the ridiculous 2012-13 Laker team took hold.
Which makes it wholly appropriate that the team decided to retire Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34 Laker jersey this season, placing the ceremony on a night that saw the Lakers playing for their playoff lives with just two weeks left in the season. Bryant and company did their part, racing out to a double-figure lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the first half before the halftime ceremony took place, starting with a highlight package of Shaq’s greatest on-court hits, followed by taped video tribute from Bryant.
Bryant, in referencing O’Neal as “the most gifted physical specimen [he’d] ever seen,” all full of “natural talent,” was telling in his description. He long regarded O’Neal as the anti-Kobe, someone just coasting on the attributes he was born with while Kobe took 500 jumpers a day; and while Bryant probably wasn’t attempting to get one final dig in, and the pair’s relationship has improved of late, his poker face was lacking.
Phil Jackson’s bemused squint then took the microphone. He mentioned the “fun” he had with O’Neal over a dozen times in his tribute, recalling the time that O’Neal showed up for practice “with nothing on but sneakers, and late,” before thankfully ceding the microphone to his fiancée, Laker co-owner Jeannie Buss. Buss, clearly emotional in the wake of her father’s (Laker owner Dr. Jerry Buss) recent passing, thanked O’Neal for his service before initiating the unveiling of the jersey to the strains of John Williams’ “Superman” theme, a song the Staples Center routinely played during some of O’Neal’s more dominant throwdowns.
It was O’Neal who came through with the evening’s best speech, by far.
Immediately he credited Dr. Buss, a person he didn’t always have the best relationship with, and the entire Buss family for streamlining his retirement ceremony through less than two years after he retired from the game. He saluted his mother and literally saluted his stepfather, Sgt. Philip Harrison, for encouraging O’Neal to combine the most prominent attributes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“If you listen to your father,” O’Neal told the audience (which included his six children) while pointing to his newly retired jersey, “this is what you can accomplish.”
He went on to praise his children for “putting up with Daddy’s weird schedule, my crazy naps and mood swings,” and for putting up with the future Hall of Famer “after bad games.” O’Neal proceeded to credit Jerry West for the significant salary cap tinkering (ahead of its time, really) needed to land O’Neal as a free agent in 1996, and then Jackson (while admitting that he only used the Cliffs Notes on the “weirdo books” Jackson gifted O’Neal) for “making the [next] level more clear.”
O’Neal once credited Jackson, who was met with “WE WANT PHIL” chants during Shaq’s speech (Kobe reportedly and rightfully flipped off the TV in the Laker locker room when the chant rang out), for inspiring him to work his way into the best shape of his basketball career in 1999 after O’Neal visited Jackson’s ranch in Montana, and spied his six replica NBA championship trophies.
Asking fans to give themselves a round of applause often comes off as cheap and self-serving, but O’Neal’s tribute to the Laker fans’ “certainty” and commitment to the team when things were going well was appropriate and well-received. Following that, the expected Hollywood tributes to Jack Nicholson, Adam Sandler, Penny Marshall, Dyan Cannon, and Ari Emanuel were tossed out.
And from there, it’s back to the TNT set for O’Neal. Back to establishing weird and petty feuds and a TV career that has had its ups and downs.
For this night, though, Shaquille O’Neal was completely on point. His appreciation was sincere, his speech was pitch-perfect, and the honor was clearly deserved. We hope that it stands as a classy re-starting point for O’Neal’s post-NBA career.