Shaquille O’Neal dominated the Staples Center court one more time Tuesday, in a halftime jersey retirement ceremony that perfectly mirrored his Lakers career.
It was booming. It was poignant. It was funny. It had thousands of fans chanting and cheering.
And Kobe Bryant appeared to blow him off.
“Can ... you … dig … it?” asked O’Neal, repeating his trademark championship chant for a sellout Staples Center crowd that screamed its affirmation.
Bryant apparently couldn’t, as he chose to record only a brief video tribute that ran on the scoreboard at the start of the ceremony. It was as if he were in Russia instead of just 45 steps away in the locker room during halftime of the Lakers’ eventual 101-81 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
“I would like to have been out there but I couldn’t do it, this was just too big of a game,” Bryant said afterward. “I had to stay back here [in the locker room] stretching and getting ready for the second half.
Bryant laughed and added, “I appreciate you guys trying to start some stuff for old times’ sake.”
Bryant briefly hugged O’Neal in the privacy of the tunnel at the halftime break before O’Neal took the court, but then the men parted ways, just as they did nine years ago to mark the end of one of the Lakers’ championship eras.
It’s a shame Bryant couldn’t have later walked those 45 steps and publicly congratulated O’Neal in front of the world, if only for a moment before returning to work. It was a long halftime. Together, as the best duo in basketball history, they won a lot of games. If Bryant is going to end his career as the face of the Lakers, then he needed to publicly, if briefly, represent them in this important connection with their history.
As if countering Bryant’s absence, O’Neal did not mention Bryant or any of his other teammates in his speech, instead thanking Kobe during a video later released on Twitter.
Said Bryant in his recording: “Amazing how time flies. I’ve got to say congratulations to you, the most gifted physical specimen I’ve ever seen play this game.”
Said O’Neal in his tweet: “This is what I want everyone to kno. Thank u very much, especially you Kobe.”
Too bad they couldn’t publicly say these things to each other, just once, just to allow their combined legacy to continue into Lakers history without the discomfort that once soiled it. Their actions spoke louder than those distant words. The feud that probably cost the team two or three more titles just will not disappear, returning to inject a bit of wincing into an otherwise compelling night.
Jeanie Buss was there, making her first appearance in front of Lakers fans since the death of her father, expressing gratitude to O’Neal while sounding very much like the team’s new leader.
“From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for always entertaining us with your talent, your sense of humor, and most of all, the winning,” she said.
Phil Jackson was there, making his first appearance in front of Lakers fans since leaving the team last year, and you knew what was coming next.
“We want Phil!” chanted fans, again and again, even during the middle of O’Neal’s speech, causing O’Neal to back meekly away from the microphone and chuckle.
“Fun, fun, fun ... did we have fun,” Jackson said. “I’m here to reiterate how much fun we had … the wins, the title, the great times.”
Finally, O’Neal spoke, leading the crowd in cheers and laughs and memories, thanking the fans for never quitting on him.
“I look in the stands, I see the certainty and calm on your faces, I knew we had it in the bag,” O’Neal said to giant roars.
His jersey is being retired, of course, because O’Neal was about more than fun. Bryant may own Staples Center, but O’Neal built it by leading the team to three consecutive titles while being the Finals most valuable player in each of them.
“I just wanted to pour my heart out, win championships, and give everyone a show,” he said earlier Tuesday. “You got your money’s worth watching us, watching me, and that’s all that ever mattered to me.”
His wide-eyed, open-mouthed, finger-raised strut after an alley-oop dunk from Kobe Bryant to clinch a Game 7 comeback
against Portland in the 2000
playoffs marked the beginning of the era. Who could ever forget his joy?
His screaming, “Now you gonna pay me!” to owner Dr. Jerry Buss in Hawaii during a preseason game in fall 2003 signified the end of the era. Who could ever forget his impetuousness?
Sadly, in the summer of 2004, he had to leave. The Lakers could have won a couple of more championships if he had stayed, but for him to stay, he had to co-exist with Bryant, and that became impossible.
Kobe thought Shaq didn’t work enough. Shaq thought Kobe didn’t smile enough
Kobe hated it that Shaq could slouch through half the season and wind up being the NBA Finals MVP. Shaq wondered why Kobe even cared how he won, as long as he won.
Kobe hated that Shaq seemingly cared about things other than the team. Shaq hated that Kobe seemingly cared only about himself.
It would be have been nice for the two men to use Tuesday’s ceremony to finally, truly, publicly heal the rift.
Yet while jersey is retired, the wounds, apparently, sadly, are not.