“Another statue for another Laker legend,” said long-time Lakers play-by-play announcer Stu Lantz. “The big fella is something, something special.”
The Staples Center unveiled the statue of Lakers icon Shaquille O’Neal on Friday at a ceremony full of laughter, anecdotes, and appreciation. Lakers fans along with franchise greats and Shaq’s loved ones all bared witness to the début of the eighth Staples Center statue.
“Can you dig it?” O’Neal yelled to the cheers of fans.
His catchphrase echoes in the nostalgic minds of long-time Lakers fans from the ‘three peat’ era when he yelled it during championship parades.
The statue is suspended in air, poised in the most exciting way to score in basketball: hands clinching the rim and legs kicked out, embodying one of Shaq’s revolutionary dunks.
People near to O’Neal spoke to at the ceremony, from former co-workers like superstar Kobe Bryant and New York Knicks president Phil Jackson to his children.
“I asked Laker fans what message they would like me to pass on to you and the highlights were that you will forever be a Laker,” said Lakers franchise President Jeanie Buss. “They told me to give you their appreciation for how you took care of the children of Los Angeles, highlighted every year by playing ShaqaClaus during Shaqmas.”
Chick Hearn Court at L.A. Live was transformed into Shaqtown, a fan fest full of carnival games, a ferris wheel and giant posters of O’Neal.
“Like millions of others, we had the pleasure of watching him evolved over time and establish himself as one of the most dominant centers ever to play the game,” said Shaq’s eldest child Taahirah O’Neal, who was born a day after he signed with the Lakers. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say we admire everything about you.”
The two Lakers greats with statues, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also shared their appreciation for Shaq’s contributions to the Lakers.
“Some people thought that the odds of Kobe Bryant showing up today were the same as Shaq making a free throw,” Abdul-Jabbar wisecracked during his speech. “No player ever had to endure more physical abuse, yet not only did he endure it, he excelled in the face of it.”
Johnson could not make the event, but shared how Dr. Jerry Buss and Jerry West appointed him to recruit Shaq back when he played for the Orlando Magic.
“With your personality as well as your game, you can come and really not only win championships but take over the world,” Johnson said. “This platform was perfect for you as a superstar and as a big, big personality.”
Jackson recalled how he challenged Shaq to play an average of 48 minutes per game, that resulted in Shaq winning league MVP honors.
“My goal with Shaquille was to have him close down the extracurricular activities, that’s the tough part,” Jackson said. “He’s a hip hop singer, he’s a movie star, and he was a childhood idol. I tried limiting three and only make it one: basketball.”
Bryant told Shaq’s children that their father “was a bad man,” calling him “the most dominant player” he had ever seen.
“The thing that was most impressive to me is that he’s such a fun outgoing guy, loves to tell jokes, loves to have fun with his teammates, practical jokes,” Bryant said. “But before the tip off, something happens, a switch goes off in him, he’s no longer joking around.”
In the audience were several players from Lakers championship seasons of yore: Robert Horry, James Worthy, Derek Fisher, A.C. Green and Rick Fox. O’Neal recalled memories with teammates like Brian Shaw, Horry, and Fisher. He mentioned James Worthy and Wilt Chamberlain were two Lakers players who also deserve statues.
“Shaquille always aligned himself with the most incredible people that you can imagine,” said Lakers legend Jerry West. “Behind the scenes this was one of the most giving human beings I have ever seen in my life.”
The dunk statue is symbolic, during his time in the NBA, Shaq’s powerful slams demolished glass backboards. The league had to adapt by building sturdier goal post with Plexiglas backboards to keep players safe.
“I watched with awe as he took down not one, but two basketball standards,” said Staples Center president Lee Zeidman about O’Neal’s rookie season. “The average weight of those backboard expansions back then was about 2000lbs.”
Shaq’s ability to break backboards brought stress to Zeidman, who was the Director of Operations at the Great Western Forum when was Shaq was traded to the Lakers.
O’Neal thanked his family, mentors, teammates and fans for their support throughout the years.
“I heard you in the game when I was missing free throws,” O’Neal said to the fans. “Thank you for staying on me, thank you for motivating me and this is a great moment.”