<
>

City mourns loss of star center

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers decided they can live without
Shaquille O'Neal, but can Los Angeles?

The stunning departure of the legendary 7-footer for Miami has
left behind more than a pair of size 22 sneakers to fill. In a city
that manufactures celebrity -- indeed, thrives on it -- O'Neal was
his own brand. Like Michael Jordan before him, the popularity of
the G-rated giant only started on the basketball court.

It wasn't just the thundering dunks, the three NBA championships
or even the MVPs. O'Neal straddled Hollywood and the music
business, appearing in movies like "Kazaam" and "Blue Chips"
and recording rap. His instantly recognizable smile sold everything
from sports cream to cars and the stereos that go in them. He was a
billboard favorite, and his 40-foot neon likeness shines down over
one of the city's biggest attractions, Universal CityWalk.

"L.A. is going to be shocked for a while without him. You see
him all the time, everywhere," said taxi driver George Stepanian,
50, who was waiting for a fare downtown Friday. "He was part of
L.A."

The perennial MVP "couldn't play forever," lamented longtime
fan Peggy Stovall, who counts eight O'Neal jerseys and a life-sized
cardboard cutout of the star among her Shaq memorabilia. "I guess
this was his time to go."

Lakers teams led by O'Neal packed the 19,000-seat Staples
Center, and the city held its collective breath when he was slowed
by injury. He was affectionately know by nicknames he often coined
himself, the Big Aristotle, Shaq Daddy, and of late, "The MDE,"
or Most Dominant Ever.

His trademark line, "Can you dig it?" became an unofficial
mantra. And in the O'Neal era, the Lakers' dominance provided a
welcome respite from the long-suffering Dodgers.

At 7-foot-1 and 340 pounds, with a Superman tattoo on his arm,
O'Neal looked the part as the most potent force in basketball. He
began his NBA career in 1992 with Orlando, led the Magic to the
finals in 1995, then signed with the Lakers as a free agent in
1996.

But it was a mix of imposing physical talent and a playful
charisma that made him a favorite in Los Angeles, even if he did
have his prickly moments, especially with the media. In a city that
has seen its share of urban struggles, O'Neal emerged as a symbol
of civic pride whose appeal crossed cultural barriers.

When an LAPD squad car was destroyed during a championship
victory celebration, O'Neal wrote the city a check for a new one.

He was even designated a reserve officer by the police
department of the Port of Los Angeles.

"Shaq will be missed, not only because he is one of
basketball's great players but because he is one of Los Angeles'
great personalities," Mayor James Hahn said.

While Shaq is synonymous with Los Angeles and the team he led,
another athlete should emerge from his long shadow, said David
Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a sports marketing
firm.

"He was largely the face of Los Angeles from a sports
standpoint," Carter said. But "Southern California will quickly
forget Shaq if this team comes out of the gate and wins 65 ball
games next year."

Shaq's exit will likely force some regional advertisers to
retool campaigns, while local merchandisers will be losing a big
seller. With his trade to the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles
Convention and Visitors Bureau had to pull ads that showed the
basketball star pitching the city as a tourist destination. And
XTRA Sports Radio 690/1150 in Los Angeles began pulling down 33
large billboards with a close-up of O'Neal's face and the tag line
"It's his city. It's his station."

But advertisers are likely to remain skittish about Shaq's
co-star and rival on the Lakers, Kobe Bryant, even if Bryant is
cleared of sexual assault charges in Colorado.

Bryant "has the opportunity to break out and be that guy, his
name is going to carry ... an asterisk," Carter said. "It's going
to take a while for people to want to align with him again."

Around town, fans said a loved one had been lost, although many
agree that O'Neal, at 32 with a dozen seasons behind him, was
heading toward the twilight of his career.

"In a way, it will be good because they'll rebuild with Kobe,"
said Starbucks barista Joshua Gonzales. "Nobody can replace Shaq,
but maybe with a younger team they can start over."

At the Team L.A. Store at the Staples Center, merchandising vice
president Alan Fey didn't expect to offer any markdowns on Shaq's
No. 34 jerseys or popular bobbleheads.

"The thing we'll miss with Shaq is the volume of sales he
generates," Fey said. "He's bigger than life."

And what about the life-sized bobblehead of O'Neal that towers
in the store's doorway?

That will remain on sale at its regular price, $25,000.

Like teams of the past, the Lakers will bounce back, predicted
Stepanian, the taxi driver.

"It's not gonna be so easy without Shaq. But we'll manage,"
Stepanian said. "L.A. will find a new hero."