Shaquille O'Neal missed a game against Vancouver to graduate with Louisiana State's Class of 2000, more than eight years after he left to become a millionaire in the NBA. The school also retired his No. 33 jersey.
"I'm the first to graduate with a degree in Crayon biology," O'Neal said. "I'm valedictorian."
The degree--in general studies, actually--fulfilled a promise he made to his mother, Lucille, when he declared for the NBA draft a year before his college eligibility expired. He took some classes last summer at an LSU satellite campus, then finished his final courses in the fall via correspondence.
"I'll have something to fall back on in case my extension falls through," he said.
O'Neal grinned. The Lakers signed him to a three-year, $88.4-million extension in the fall.
On the court, it was an interesting month for Bryant. He averaged 32.3 points and 4.9 assists. The Lakers won 11 games but lost an overtime game in which Bryant and Antawn Jamison scored 51 points apiece. It was a career high for Bryant, breaking a personal best set only four games before, when he scored 43 points in a victory against San Antonio, the Lakers' second in 11 games against the Spurs.
The criticism toward Bryant continued to grow, particularly after he missed 23 shots in a loss to Milwaukee.
"He's a kid," Jackson said. "He's a 22-year-old kid. Maybe [he's thinking] he fell below a 30-points-per-game average. [Ray] Allen's got 35, I'm going to show Allen. You don't know what's going on in a kid's mind out there. Sometimes with Kobe it's not 'we' it's 'me.' In that regard with Kobe, you've got to step back and say, 'What's really important?' The team is what's really important."
Jackson's tone did not suggest a scathing criticism of Bryant, though the words were harsh. Indeed, he had given Bryant plenty of room to play his game in the season's first six weeks.
The oft-denied story of O'Neal using sign language to keep the ball away from Bryant got a lot of play in a lot of places. Everyone loved the intrigue of it, true or not.
"B.S.," Jackson said. "Pretty tough to get that accomplished out there on the court. It's impossible to happen. If you're playing basketball, it just can't happen. You're just playing the game, instinctively doing the right thing."
O'Neal said he was somewhat insulted by the allegation.
"I wouldn't do that," he said.
It wasn't an entirely glorious month for O'Neal. He set an NBA record when he missed all 11 free throws in a Dec. 8 loss to Seattle. He quickly learned to live with it.
"Any time you can replace a guy like Wilt," O'Neal said, grinning, "it's an honor."
Wilt Chamberlain once was 0 for 10 from the line. The record had stood for 40 years. When life gives you bricks, build a barbecue.
"You know, when you try real hard, anything can be accomplished," O'Neal said. "I'll tell my sons--you know, your daddy beat out Wilt. I'll always be remembered in this game."
O'Neal's sense of humor waned when Dallas Maverick Coach Don Nelson, hoping for a repeat performance, went to an early Hack-A Shaq two weeks later.
"It seemed to me none of their guys wanted to play anyway," O'Neal said. "Either they were trying to foul me the whole time or they didn't want to play. That's clown basketball. It should be clown basketball, coming from a clown guy like Don Nelson."