Commentary

Shaq's mixed homecoming

Updated: December 26, 2009, 4:22 PM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPN Los Angeles

There was a smattering of boos when his name was announced, louder jeers when he first touched the ball in the paint and an almost unison groan when he threw down his first dunk.

It's been more than five years since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant essentially divorced, and it seems as if the only ones still holding a grudge these days are the children of Los Angeles who still can't forgive O'Neal for leaving them.

They might be living with Bryant now, but a part of them will never truly get over the heartbreak and anger they felt when Big Daddy Shaq packed up his belongings and got on a one-way flight to Miami. Why did those two have to split when they were playing for a championship every year? Sure, there might have been arguments and name calling, but that's a part of all marriages, right?

"I've been in the league long enough that boos don't bother me," said O'Neal, who scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the Cavaliers' 102-87 win. "I first got booed in Brownsville, Texas, and the worst booing I had was in Starkville, Miss., so if you can handle boos from Brownsville to Starkville, you can handle boos anywhere."

You can point the blame in a dozen directions for why the marriage didn't work, but the fact remains that both are in a better place now. Bryant and O'Neal both won a championship on their own, and both are on championship contenders now.

Lost amid the hype and hysteria of Bryant's playing LeBron James on Christmas Day (and the return of their puppets on our airwaves) was the distinct possibility that O'Neal was playing his last game at the Staples Center against the Lakers.

O'Neal, who had five dunks in the game after recording just 28 through the first 30 games, is in the last year of his contract, and unless he's content taking a massive pay cut and a reduced role next season, he might be playing the final games of his 18-year career. O'Neal is making $20 million this year and likely would get a deal for no more than the midlevel exception ($5.8 million per season) as a 38-year-old free agent.

There might be a market for O'Neal at that price if he's interested, but you can already cross the Lakers off that list despite rumors to the contrary. That's a reunion that sounds about as promising as a Whitney Houston-Bobby Brown makeup session.

If this was the last time Lakers fans saw O'Neal, Bryant, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher on the same Staples Center court, it's a shame O'Neal was showered with foam fingers instead of cheers not only for helping the Lakers win three NBA championships but also for wanting to leave and setting this team up for future success.

Think about it. Would you rather have a nearly retired O'Neal or Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Jordan Farmar -- three players who can trace their arrival to the Lakers through the O'Neal trade?

It is clear O'Neal won't get that standing ovation until he returns to Staples Center to get his jersey retired alongside the championship banners he won here, and he seems more than content with that as he tries to help a third franchise win a title before calling it a career.

O'Neal doesn't dwell much on his days with the Lakers anymore. Time has healed whatever wounds he felt from Bryant, Jackson or Lakers owner Jerry Buss after he left. He now puts the time he had in Los Angeles in perspective. It was and will always be the high-water mark of one of the greatest careers in NBA history.

"Whenever you talk about Lakers history, my name will be mentioned all time," said O'Neal, who hugged Bryant before the game and gave Jackson a thumbs-up afterward. "I'm lucky I was able to win so many [championships] here."

Although the soldout crowd at Staples Center didn't give O'Neal the warmest reception upon his return, that wasn't the case on Christmas Eve as O'Neal and three of his children -- Shareef, Amirah and Shaqir -- drove to the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles to hand out Christmas gifts after the Cavaliers practiced at UCLA on Thursday.

It's a tradition O'Neal started in 1992 as a rookie at the insistence of his mother, Lucille, and one that has turned into an annual family tradition his children look forward to as much as he does.

"When are we going to hand out the presents?" asked his daughter Amirah, 8, as she sat on her dad's lap surrounded by boxes of Hannah Montana dolls and radio-controlled airplanes.

"Soon," O'Neal said as he kissed her on the cheek while she put a sequined Santa hat on his head. "Real soon."

Moments later 150 kids walked up to O'Neal, seated on a wreathed leather chair ("Call me Shaq-a-Claus," he said), as he handed out toys to each one. He even a humored a few of the older kids by re-enacting his genie stance and head nod from "Kazaam."

Afterward, O'Neal and his children got into his black Mercedes and drove to Jenesse Center, home of a domestic violence intervention program, where about 200 adults and children gathered to receive gifts and encouraging words from O'Neal.

"I know you women are going through some tough times now," he said to a room full of mothers with their children. "But keep smiling and believe in God and believe me things will get better."

O'Neal didn't the leave the house until sundown as he stayed to give each family Christmas gifts and take pictures with them. He might not live in Los Angeles anymore or play for the Lakers, but for these families, this will always be his home.

"He'll always be a Laker to me," said one mother holding a plastic bag full of toys given to her by O'Neal for her three children. "He's as much a part of this city as anyone on the Lakers. It doesn't matter where he is playing now."

As O'Neal prepared to walk out of the Staples Center after what could have been his last game on the Lakers' court, he shrugged his shoulders when asked how he would like Lakers fans to remember him or how they'll view him when he decides to retire.

"That's not for me to decide," he said. "When it's all said and done, I don't know how people will remember me. But I've always been a guy that did things my way and did it the way I wanted to do it and won four championships and had a good time doing it. I hope they remember that."

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com