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Shaquille O'Neal to be elevated to level of great Lakers centers

Shaquille O'Neal will have his jersey number retired Tuesday, joining those of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the upper reaches of Staples Center.

April 02, 2013|By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times
  • Shaquille O'Neal celebrates in the locker room after winning the 2001 NBA Championship.
Shaquille O'Neal celebrates in the locker room after winning the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

If Shaquille O'Neal needed a nickname on his first day as a Laker, it could have been the Big Worrywart.

As dominant as he was, the best big man in the NBA recognized he represented just a fraction of the Lakers centers who had come before him.

George Mikan won six titles while becoming Mr. Basketball. Wilt Chamberlain won two titles (one as a Laker) and scored 100 points in a game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles (five as a Laker) and was the league's all-time leading scorer.

What had O'Neal done, besides help the Orlando Magic go poof in a four-game sweep during the 1995 Finals?

"It was something I was terrified of," O'Neal said of the Lakers' legacy of centers. "We made it to the Finals that one year. That was good, but it wasn't as good as them yet. Because in my mind I'm like, 'Wilt's got two [titles], Kareem's got six and I have none.'"

O'Neal's insecurities were only reinforced when Jerry West, then the Lakers' executive vice president, placed his hands on the center's broad shoulders shortly after he joined the team in July 1996 and told him to look up at the jerseys hanging from the rafters inside the Forum.

"He said, 'Son, if you do everything correctly and do everything in a professional manner,'" O'Neal said, recalling their conversation, "'you may be up there one day.'"

That day is here.

O'Neal's No. 34 will join Chamberlain's No. 13, Abdul-Jabbar's No. 33 and the banner that honors Mikan's No. 99 in the upper reaches of Staples Center on Tuesday when the Lakers play the Dallas Mavericks. After winning three of his four titles with the Lakers during a 19-season career that ended in 2011, O'Neal doesn't need to fear his place in purple-and-gold lore anymore.

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Collectively, the Lakers' Biggest Four logged 11 most valuable player awards, 18 championships and 51 All-Star game selections over their careers. Fifteen of those titles came with the Lakers.

"It's not surprising the success the Lakers have had," said Hall of Fame guard Gail Goodrich, a member of the 1971-72 team that won the championship with Chamberlain and West, "because they've had great centers."

The Lakers' luck in acquiring those centers, however, was nothing less than extraordinary.

Chamberlain arrived via trade in 1968, purportedly after the Philadelphia 76ers refused to honor an alleged agreement with a deceased co-owner to give their best player part ownership of the team.

Abdul-Jabbar compelled the Milwaukee Bucks to trade him in 1975 after telling management the mid-sized city was incompatible with his large-market tastes. Los Angeles won out among the bidders despite having been third on his wish list of destinations, behind New York and Washington.

O'Neal picked the Lakers in free agency because he viewed the Magic franchise as largely non-supportive. The $120 million the Lakers were offering also didn't hurt.

The Lakers made their own good fortune when it came to Mikan.

As the story goes, Sid Hartman, who was the team's de facto general manager when the franchise was born in Minneapolis, deliberately took a wrong turn while driving Mikan to the airport in 1947 after a day of failed negotiations with the marquee center. Forced to spend the night, Mikan reconsidered and signed with the Lakers the next day. The bespectacled big man went on to lead them to six championships in the next seven seasons, the last five in the NBA.

"George could shoot either right- or left-handed," recalled former Lakers coach John Kundla, 96. "He was very strong with both hands. It was hard to stop him."

So hard that league officials doubled the width of the lane to keep the 6-foot-10, 245-pounder from stationing himself underneath the basket for easy points. He still led the league in scoring three times. Commissioner David Stern once called Mikan, who died in 2005, the NBA's "first true superstar."

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The NBA was formed in 1946, and Harvey Pollack, the director of statistical information for the Philadelphia 76ers, is the only original team employee still working in the league.

"I've seen them all," said Pollack, 91, who was the Philadelphia Warriors' public relations director the night Chamberlain scored 100 points in 1962. "To me, he was the greatest player to play the game. He did everything. He scored, he rebounded and he was only center in league history to lead the league in assists."

Was the late Chamberlain greater than even Bill Russell, who won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics? "Every game they ever played against each other," Pollack said, "Wilt kills him in points and is four or five rebounds ahead of him."

By the time he joined the Lakers in 1968, Chamberlain, then 32, was no longer the prolific scorer he had been earlier in his career, when he once averaged 50.4 points per game in a season. That didn't make him any less coveted by a franchise thirsting for its next great center. Chamberlain averaged a Los Angeles franchise-record 21.1 rebounds during his first season with the team. It was just the opening act.

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