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Shaquille O'Neal and Lakers could have done so much more

Yes, O'Neal and Kobe Bryant teamed for three championships, but their differences, and Shaq's issues with owner Jerry Buss, cost them the ultimate glory.

June 03, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, and center Shaquille O'Neal sit on the bench during Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference finals against the Minnesota Timberwolves. What would have happened if O'Neal stayed with the Lakers until his retirement?
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, and center Shaquille O'Neal sit on… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The retirement announcement was made on a grainy video shot in his Orlando home and sent to the world through a social media service.

So typical of Shaquille O'Neal, it was cute, cutting edge … and sad.

The retirement announcement should have been on the Staples Center court in front of thousands. His eight Lakers championship rings should have been displayed in front of him. The beginnings of a statue should have been visible beyond him.

And Kobe Bryant should have been standing beside him.

Amid a national outpouring of love and respect for basketball's most entertaining big man, I must add two more overpowering emotions that Lakers fans will surely understand.

I cannot say goodbye to Shaq without a bit of anger and plenty of regret.

He should have worked harder here. He should have acted more maturely here. And, despite even these issues, he never, ever should have been allowed to leave.

If Shaquille O'Neal remained here beyond 2004 instead of being traded away after eight memorable seasons, he might have become basketball's greatest center and the Lakers would have become basketball's greatest champions.

But he acted like a baby. And Kobe Bryant acted like a baby. And, to be honest, owner Jerry Buss acted like a bit of a baby. All this whining cost the Lakers all sorts of winning, making the end of the Shaq saga the most regrettable in the history of Los Angeles sports.

Not that Shaq Daddy wasn't fun. He was a blast. The eight years I spent covering him were among the most memorable of my career here. He was a superstar who acted like a schoolboy, a giant who reveled in the little things, a celebrity who would have made a perfect next-door neighbor.

Once, when he was happy with a column I wrote, he grabbed me in the locker room, pulled me into his chest and danced with me in circles. My back and neck were sore for a week.

Another time, when he was angry with one of my columns, he printed my name in a derogatory fashion on a T-shirt that he passed out to teammates. The shirt inexplicably pictured me as a frog. I might have been insulted if I could have stopped laughing.

Sadly, though, the childishness that was Shaq's blessing was also his curse. He not only joked like a teenager, he was filled with the sudden anger and unwarranted jealousy and, yes, the occasional laziness of a teenager.

And eventually, the wonderful what-nexts of Shaquille O'Neal's career here became the what-ifs.

What if Shaq had ignored the billboard?

Early in the Lakers' Shaq-Kobe dynasty, the Lakers' team bus was driving into downtown Portland from the airport when it passed a five-story billboard featuring an advertisement for Bryant. At the time, O'Neal was more celebrated and accomplished than Bryant. Yet the billboard made him realize he would never be more popular. It was the beginning of an envy that eventually destroyed everything.

What if Shaq had toed the line?

After the Lakers' third championship, O'Neal required toe surgery immediately, yet refused it until September, causing him to miss the first 12 games of the season and hampering him throughout the year.

"Since I suffered the injury on company time, why shouldn't I be able to get surgery and do recovery on company time?" he said.

Lakers officials never forgot that quote, nor the message that O'Neal would never work hard enough to last long enough to make his antics worth it.

What if Shaq had not kicked Kobe when he was down?

At the opening of the 2003-04 training camp, with Bryant missing because of injuries and his impending sexual assault trial, O'Neal looked around and said, "The full team is here."

As if there were any confusion, he later said, "I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone] and Gary [Payton]."

In Bryant's darkest days, O'Neal turned his back on him, and the two could rarely face each other again.

What if Shaq had not yelled at the boss?

In the Honolulu exhibition opener before O'Neal's final season here, Shaq blocked a shot and then ran back screaming at Buss as the owner sat at midcourt.

"Now you gonna pay me?" he shouted, referring to a desired contract extension.

Buss, who had always treated O'Neal fairly, was embarrassed in front of his friends and family. It was the beginning of the end.

What if everyone had just grown up?

In the summer of 2004, just before O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, it all could have been stopped.

Bryant could have shrugged off past slights and realized the potential for greatness and told the Lakers that he wanted Shaq back. He did not.

Buss could have ignored O'Neal's brashness and taken a chance that Shaq's work ethic would improve with age. He did not.

O'Neal could have shown signs that he was willing to grow up and stay in shape for the sake of continuing a historic championship run. He could not.

Three decisions, all scented with the foulness of pride and ego, all of them wrong. Even though the Lakers have won two titles since, and O'Neal has won one with Miami, his legacy here will be forever marked by the three decisions that ultimately prevented a great NBA team from being the greatest.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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