Shaquille O'Neal came out of the fog early Wednesday morning, and there were familiar faces at his hospital bedside, Laker officials and O'Neal officials among them.
He grinned crookedly and offered a crude gesture to them all, and they laughed, because they knew then that he probably would be fine.
The force behind three consecutive Laker championships and the predominant reason the franchise expects a fourth, O'Neal woke up, stood up and walked away from surgery on his arthritic big toe, the minimum required for what his doctor later called a successful procedure.
Standing between buildings at UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Robert Mohr said surgeons encountered nothing unexpected in the 45-minute surgery that cleared bone spurs from the first joint of O'Neal's afflicted right toe. The range of motion in the joint improved immediately and significantly, Mohr said, and he predicted a recovery time of six to eight weeks.
A six-week rehabilitation would have O'Neal ready a week before the regular season begins. Eight weeks would have him sit out five games.
"Everything went extremely well today," Mohr said. "Surgery went as scheduled, as planned.
"Hopefully, with the passage of time, Mother Nature and active rehab, he should be back better than he was at the end of last season."
O'Neal and the Lakers are banking on it.
He sat out 10 games last season because of the ache in his toe, and often lacked the mobility that, along with his unusual size and strength, made him the NBA's dominant player. The pain soured his mood and the anti-inflammatory medication soured his stomach, and he was frustrated when his injury allowed lesser talents to stay with his.
His regular-season statistics fell beneath his career numbers, but, drawn by the conclusion of the season and the lure of the three-peat, O'Neal played his best basketball in the playoffs, and was most valuable player of the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year.
At the end of a summer spent gathering medical opinions and dismissing others, O'Neal was jovial when he arrived at UCLA Medical Center at 7:15 Wednesday morning, according to his agent, Perry Rogers.
"He was in a great mood," Rogers said. "He was ready to get it done. He was excited."
Mohr, who before the procedure had said it would be difficult to know exactly what the joint would require until surgery, found clean cartilage--vital to an optimum recovery--and no unusual damage. In a procedure called a cheilectomy, Mohr carved away bone spurs from the top of the joint.
"This type of procedure is probably the least troublesome, complication-wise, and that's one of the reasons we chose it," he said. "Plus, that's all that was indicated in his case. As far as a track record, I don't think there are many people of Mr. O'Neal's size and profession who have had this problem. But I don't anticipate any trouble."
Before the surgery, Mohr said, the joint allowed O'Neal about 30 degrees of movement.
"You need about 60 to 80 degrees of motion for athletic activity," Mohr said. "When we freed up all the bone spurs and remodeled the joint, we reestablished the availability of motion for him.
"As far as the future, we're very confident he's going to have a complete recovery. From what I've seen, I see no reason not to continue with that belief."
If the recovery proceeds as planned, O'Neal will begin a rehabilitation program in two weeks or sooner, when he will be allowed to ride a stationary bike. Mohr predicted O'Neal would run in about six weeks.
"And then," Mohr said, "get back in action as soon as he can after that."
Mohr had arrived at the news conference surrounded by those closest to O'Neal--business manager Mike Parris, bodyguard Jerome Crawford and agent Rogers. Also, Laker Coach Phil Jackson and General Manager Mitch Kupchak had visited O'Neal in the recovery room.
Kupchak admitted he has mulled the impossible--replacing O'Neal, even for a brief period early in the season. Samaki Walker had capable moments at center last season, and the club could bring to training camp the likes of Ike Austin or Duane Causwell, depending on their play in this week's tryout camp.
Still, when the news seemed so favorable on a sunny morning in Westwood, that seemed far away.
"I think we're all relieved," Kupchak said. "When the doctor came out with a smile, there was a great deal of relief."