(AP) Lakers hang Shaq’s No. 34 jersey in the rafters
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
When Shaquille O’Neal visited the Forum during the summer he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Jerry West encouraged him to look up at the retired jerseys hanging above the court.
West’s prediction is finally official. Shaq joined Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan and the rest of the Lakers’ greats Tuesday night when the club retired his No. 34 jersey in a halftime ceremony.
Although O’Neal rarely finds himself speechless, he’s thrilled to receive the honor he first imagined back in 1996 when he chose the Lakers.
There’s no longer any doubt O’Neal ranks among the greatest centers in basketball history. The NBA’s sixth-leading career scorer played eight of his 19 seasons with the Lakers, winning three championships and reaching four NBA finals during his basketball prime.
Although O’Neal began his career in Orlando and played for four more teams after leaving Los Angeles, the 15-time All-Star says he considers Los Angeles his NBA home.
O’Neal’s eight years alongside Kobe Bryant are among the most tumultuous and successful times in the team’s history. They overcame initial struggles to win three straight titles from 2000-02 with the arrival of coach Phil Jackson, who returned to Staples on Tuesday for O’Neal’s ceremony.
O’Neal and Bryant eventually split in 2004 after numerous personal and professional clashes, and their verbal sparring continued through Bryant’s fifth championship in 2010. O’Neal insists any feud is long squashed, chalking it all up to posturing and mutual motivation.
Although he retired in 2011, O’Neal still is making an imprint on the Lakers–specifically on the psyche of Dwight Howard, their new franchise center.
O’Neal’s pointed criticism of Howard in his new job as a television pundit has been an intriguing subplot to the latest Lakers big man’s rough debut season. O’Neal didn’t back off Howard on his special night, saying Howard should try to average 28 points and 10 rebounds per game if he hopes to be taken seriously as an elite center.
When asked if he empathized with Howard’s struggles to get healthy after offseason back surgery, O’Neal said: “My father was a military drill sergeant, and his motto was, ‘If you can walk, you can play.’ I wish there was a time I was injury-free when I played. I empathize with his pain, but no pain, no gain. He has the potential to be one of the greatest big men ever, but he has to want it.”
O’Neal’s celebration included profuse thanks to the Buss family, several former coaches and Lakers employees. He name-checked nearly everybody who worked for the Lakers during his eight-year tenure, even extending a detailed thanks to former assistant coach Bill Bertka.