Shaq's legacy in L.A. healed by time
When it comes to remembering great athletes, our memories have a beautiful way of suddenly becoming selective.
It's a quality we all wish we could transfer into other areas of our mind when it seems we can never forget how we ended a relationship or left a job no matter how hard we try. In the real world, the final chapter is often the one that sticks with us.
But in sports we tend to remember the good times and conveniently forget the bad ones that get in the way of us describing the legacy of larger-than-life players.
When we think of Joe Montana, we think of him with the San Francisco 49ers, not the Kansas City Chiefs.
When we think of Muhammad Ali, we think of him beating George Foreman, not losing to Larry Holmes.
And when we think of Shaquille O'Neal's career years from now, we will think of him with the Los Angeles Lakers and not the four teams he played with in his last four seasons in the league before retiring on Wednesday.
We will remember him finishing off Kobe Bryant's alley-oop to cement the Lakers' improbable comeback in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
We will remember his near quadruple-double in Game 2 of the 2001 NBA Finals when he had 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks against the Philadelphia 76ers.
And we will remember him scoring 61 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on the night of his 28th birthday.
We will remember all his nicknames, from "The Big Diesel" to "The Big Aristotle," screaming "Can you dig it?!" during the Lakers' championship celebrations and constantly calling out the Sacramento Kings.
He will not only join former Lakers centers George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Hall of Fame five years from now but will have his jersey retired at Staples Center as well. It's only a matter of time before he also gets a 7-foot-1 statue in front of the arena he helped make famous after it opened in 1999. (Well, after Kareem gets his first, of course.)
There will be some who will say the end of O'Neal's career with the Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics should prevent him from such lofty honors with the Lakers. Thankfully it's a false notion shared only by a few in a city that embraced O'Neal as one of its own as he led the Lakers to three straight championships, from 2000 to 2002. It's ridiculous to think the end of his 19-year career should cancel out the memorable eight seasons he had in Los Angeles.
Time has healed whatever wounds that were inflicted during the end of O'Neal's tenure in Los Angeles, which resulted in the Lakers trading him to the Miami Heat in 2004. He took public shots at Lakers owner Jerry Buss, teammate Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson. Of course, he also performed that infamous rap in 2008 in which he asked Bryant a, shall we say, "indelicate question," while blaming Kobe for his divorce and saying Kobe would be unable to win a championship without him.
While Lakers fans booed him mercilessly whenever he came back following the trade, there seemed to be a changing of opinion when he returned to Los Angeles for Jerry West's statue unveiling ceremony during NBA All-Star Weekend in February. He was cheered as he walked through a crowd of fans outside of Staples Center and was singled out by West during his speech as he recalled the signing OF O'Neal as a free agent in 1996 AS one of the biggest moments in the franchise's history.
I was able to spend some time with O'Neal and his family when he returned to Los Angeles to play the Lakers as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day 2009. I figured the game would likely be his last against the Lakers at Staples Center (that actually came a year later with the Boston Celtics) and wanted to see if the moment meant anything to him.
As O'Neal handed out gifts on Christmas Eve along with three of his children (Shareef, Amirah and Shaqir) at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles he recognized that his eight seasons in Los Angeles will always be viewed as the high-water mark of his career.
"Whenever you talk about Lakers history, my name will be mentioned all [the] time," he said. "I'm lucky I was able to win so many [championships] here."
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As much as he enjoyed his time with the Lakers, he said it wasn't up to him to figure out what his legacy would be in Los Angeles.
"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."
It may have been hard for Lakers fans to remember that while he was wearing different uniforms the past four seasons but it will become increasingly easier now that he's retired and highlights of his time with the Lakers are regularly played.
As is the case with all great players when they retire, the bad times will slowly fade away as the good ones become more and more prominent. And when it came to O'Neal's eight seasons in Los Angeles, there were plenty of good times to remember.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.