When Shaquille O’Neal became a Laker, then-general manager Jerry West took him to the Forum.
Look up, West said.
O’Neal looked up. He saw championship banners. He saw retired jerseys. He saw some of the greatest to ever play the game.
“He said, ‘I know you got a lot of things going on, your movies, your music career, your commercials,’” O’Neal recalls West telling him. “‘At the end of this, when it’s all said and done, your name could be up there or you could be a bust.’ I didn’t want to be a bust. I wanted to be next to Kareem and Magic.”
Today, West will be there as O’Neal’s statue is unveiled at Staples Center, not far from where the bronze likeness of West stands. O’Neal’s statue will hover above the grounds outside Staples Center.
“Someone who brought something other than just another great player to the table,” West said in describing O’Neal. “One of the unique people I’ve ever been around. Someone I loved like a son.”
When West gave O’Neal that tour of the Forum, he knew that tactic would work. Even though O’Neal’s jovial personality made many wonder about his dedication to basketball, West never thought that was fair. He’d grown to know O’Neal through phone conversations during their free-agent negotiations of 1996.
“I had watched him play when he was a freshman [at LSU],” West said. “I said to myself, ‘My God, boy, he would look great in a [Laker] uniform,’ knowing full well that was probably never going to happen.”
The 1996 free-agent class included Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, but West preferred O’Neal. He worked to convince O’Neal the Lakers had a better team than O’Neal might have thought. He said O’Neal could achieve greatness in L.A. During the course of those conversations, West and O’Neal began to trust each other.
“Hopefully, he appreciated my honesty and how I felt about him as a player,” West said. “It was very intimate.”
O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato, wanted the opportunities that Los Angeles would afford his client, said West, who just had to find the salary cap space to make a pitch worth both of their time.
The Lakers traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant, who West thought was the best player in the draft. That cleared some cap space for O’Neal, but not enough. At the last minute, West planned a deal that would have sent George Lynch and Anthony Peeler to the Vancouver Grizzlies. West told Armato that he would not make the trade unless O’Neal was coming to the Lakers.
“I told Shaquille, ‘Look, we’ve done everything we can,’” West said. “‘There’s nothing more we can do [while] protecting the integrity of this team, that will give you a chance to win at the highest level.’ We called one night. I said to him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘I’m coming. Get it done.’”
Former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal is all smiles after the unveiling of his statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Confetti falls as Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal and members of his family unveil his statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal is joined by former teammate Kobe Bryant and former coach Phil Jackson during the unveiling of his statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers fans mill around a large inflatable likeness of former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal before the unveiling of his statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Fans gather outside of Staples Center for the unveiling of a statue of Lakers great Shaquille O’Neal.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, left, shares a light moment with another Lakers legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, right, after the unveiling of O’Neal’s statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Shaquille O’Neal, left, poses for pictures with former teammates after the unveiling of his statue outside Staples Center.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
West’s relationship with O’Neal only grew from there. West was honest with O’Neal when he was suspended after slapping Greg Ostertag, telling him he was too good to do something like that. West always looked forward to seeing O’Neal in the locker room, drawn to his cheerful, self-deprecating humor.
“I felt a kinship with him. I really truly felt a kinship with him,” West said. “There’s nothing I ever told him that wasn’t the truth. I never tried to deceive him. Would never underpay any player. Period. I have a fondness for him that goes beyond description. When I was around him, I felt better.”
West didn’t attend the Lakers’ first NBA Finals with Shaq. From afar he watched with pride as they beat the Indiana Pacers in six games.
“Frankly, I just couldn’t be there anymore,” West said. “I had given too much for this franchise. It wasn’t good for me, it wasn’t good for my health. I watched from afar and I was thrilled for him because what I felt we could do was help him win a championship.”
Then West stepped away from the franchise he’d been with for 40 years. But O’Neal never forgot the impact West had made.
Neither did West ever forget O’Neal.
“I thought it was awful that he left,” West said of O’Neal’s trade to the Miami Heat. “I think they could’ve won a couple more championships, but that wasn’t to be.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli