LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Shaquille O’Neal visited the Forum during the summer he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, general manager Jerry West encouraged him to look up at the retired jerseys hanging above the court.
“He said, ‘You can be as great as these guys,'” O’Neal recalled.
West’s prediction is finally official. Shaq joined Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan, West and the rest of the Lakers’ greats Tuesday night when the club retired his No. 34 jersey in a halftime ceremony.
“I just wish Dr. Buss was here to see this, to enjoy this joyous occasion,” O’Neal said of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who died in February. “I always hoped and prayed it would come. It was a dream come true.”
Although O’Neal rarely finds himself speechless, he’s thrilled to receive the honor he first imagined back in 1996 when he chose the Lakers. O’Neal’s yellow jersey with white numerals was unveiled to a standing ovation, hanging next to Magic Johnson’s No. 32.
“It gets me real emotional,” O’Neal said before the game. “Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, and my father teaching me about the game, always mentioning Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and telling me when I was a young medium juvenile delinquent that, ‘If you do things right, son, maybe one day you can be as great as those guys.'”
There’s no longer any doubt O’Neal ranks among the greatest centers in basketball history. The NBA’s sixth-leading career scorer played eight of his 19 seasons with the Lakers, winning three championships and reaching four NBA finals during his basketball prime.
Although O’Neal began his career in Orlando and played for four more teams after leaving Los Angeles, the 15-time All-Star says he considers Los Angeles his NBA home.
“I did most of my damage here, won most of my championships here, had most of my fun here,” he said. “Even though I got one in Miami, it was fun, but we had three great ones here, three in a row. If I’m good enough to get into the Hall of Fame, I’ll definitely go in as a Laker.”
Kobe Bryant was in the locker room during halftime of the Lakers’ game against Dallas, but he filmed a video tribute to kick off O’Neal’s ceremony, calling him “the most gifted physical specimen I’ve ever seen play this game.
“What you’ve meant to the city has been absolutely historical, what we’ve done together,” Bryant added. “I know you’ve played for other organizations, but you’ll always be truly remembered for playing for one.”
O’Neal’s eight years alongside Bryant are among the most tumultuous and successful times in the team’s history. They overcame initial struggles to win three straight titles from 2000-02 with the arrival of coach Phil Jackson, who returned to Staples on Tuesday for O’Neal’s ceremony.
O’Neal and Bryant eventually split in 2004 after numerous personal and professional clashes, and their verbal sparring continued through Bryant’s fifth championship in 2010. O’Neal insists any feud is long squashed, chalking it all up to posturing and mutual motivation.
“We’ve talked a lot since our playing days,” O’Neal said. “There’s two different kinds of dislike. There’s an athletic dislike, and there’s a real dislike. We never had a real dislike. We had a million good times and a thousand bad times. … If I had it all over to do again, would I do it different? Probably not.”
Jackson got his own attention while attending what was likely his first Lakers game since walking away from the club in 2011 — and the sellout crowd clearly would rather see him back in the seat currently occupied by Mike D’Antoni. Jackson sat in the second row next to his fiancee, Jeanie Buss, and received several “We Want Phil!” chants of increasing intensity during the ceremony.
“I want to thank you for your dedication and your leadership and the hard work that you put in,” Jackson said to O’Neal.
Although he retired in 2011, O’Neal still is making an imprint on the Lakers — specifically on the psyche of Dwight Howard, their new franchise center.
O’Neal’s pointed criticism of Howard in his new job as a television pundit has been an intriguing subplot to the latest Lakers big man’s rough debut season. O’Neal didn’t back off Howard on his special night, saying Howard should try to average 28 points and 10 rebounds per game if he hopes to be taken seriously as an elite center.
“We don’t really have a relationship, but I’m just doing to him what the others did to me,” O’Neal said of Howard, recalling Abdul-Jabbar calling him “an OK player” before he had any rings.
“I think it was Kareem’s challenge to me to step it up,” O’Neal added. “I’m not criticizing (Howard). I’m just issuing a challenge. I think I have the right to say, ‘You have to average 28-10 in order to get a championship.’ I just see a kid with a lot of talent.”
When asked if he empathized with Howard’s struggles to get healthy after offseason back surgery, O’Neal said: “My father was a military drill sergeant, and his motto was, ‘If you can walk, you can play.’ I wish there was a time I was injury-free when I played. I empathize with his pain, but no pain, no gain. He has the potential to be one of the greatest big men ever, but he has to want it.”
O’Neal’s celebration included profuse thanks to the Buss family, several former coaches and Lakers employees. He name-checked nearly everybody who worked for the Lakers during his eight-year tenure, even extending a detailed thanks to former assistant coach Bill Bertka.
“The only regrets I have are missing 200 games and missing 5,000 free throws,” O’Neal said. “Other than that, I had fun, did it my way. Made a lot of friends, made a lot of enemies. It was all fun.”