Shaquille O'Neal was able to be his easygoing, entertaining self Tuesday night at halftime of the Lakers' win over the Mavericks. He hammed it with the crowd, telling jokes and going to his reliable schtick. He thanked the Buss family, his old coach Phil Jackson (in attendance and also soaking in lots of appreciation from the fans in attendance, shouting "We want Phil") and all the fans and his former teammates.
Then the moment of unveiling came. The black sheet covering up the empty spot in the Staples Center rafters slowly scrolled away as the theme from Superman came on.
O'Neal talked about the risk Jerry West took when he signed the young man from Orlando in 1996. About how he was an immature person and needed to be reminded by his elders — both in management from West, who pointed to the pantheon hanging in the rafters at the Great Western Forum at the time and said "If you work hard, you could be there one day," and from greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — his potential for grateness.
O'Neal, in order to win, had to learn how to dominate in an entirely new way. And he became legendary.
There are not many Shaquille O'Neals around anymore. The NBA has changed and is no longer a big man's game. Other considerations have entered the mind. One thing O'Neal says though should stick: Winning takes care of everything.
The parallels in the stories of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard are eerie. From being drafted in Orlando and taking the organization to a lone NBA Finals appearance (before oddly losing in the conference finals the next year to the team they beat in the second round during their Finals runs) to adopting the Superman moniker. These two dominant big men have shared a lot of common history.
Because of their beginnings, their personalities and their size, And, of course, their final destination within the Lakers organization. Howard may want to be his "own man" and himself, but he cannot escape the shadow O'Neal has cast. Just as O'Neal could not escape the Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain banners casting a shadow on him.
O'Neal recently admitted that there was a lot of pressure to live upt o those names and to meet the expectations of the great pantheon of Lakers centers. It is not for everybody.
Dwight Howard is learning if it is for him with O'Neal playing the older genreation of Lakers trying to push Howard to meet the high standards.
O'Neal has long been an outspoken critic of Howard's, asking the center to average 28 points to go along with his dominant rebounding and defense numbers. Nothing seemed enough for Howard to gain O'Neal's acceptance. But O'Neal kept pushing and prodding Howard to get better, needling him like he needled others publicly throughout his career to push them to higher levels. That is just O'Neal's way.
I love Dwight and I see his potential. Hopefully when I say these things he gets mad. Just think about it. At the dunk contest, he dunked on that thing when it was 15 feet. Remember that? OK, so why can't you back people down [in the post]? Because if you think I didn't play against great centers, he's not playing against nobody, you know what I mean?
So he should be able to back people down and jump-hook them to death. That's why I envision in him as a player.
Howard is not one to take criticism well. He often bristles at criticism and says he focuses on himself. He is also extremely sensitive at times and takes criticism personally, even when it is constructive. That explains some of his issues with Stan Van Gundy despite all the success they had together with the Magic and it explains his frustrations over the fawning over other players in the league when Howard was such a defensive force.
Howard's response to criticism publicly is not to get angry and take it out on the court, but to joke and laugh it off. In that way, Howard has not matured in the way O'Neal has.
What O'Neal is doing to push the heir apparent to the Lakers center dynasty might have worked when he was young, but Howard is a different kind of player. He is a player groomed in the AAU age of All-Star teams and runners, of The Decision and playing with friends.
When Howard arrived in Los Angeles, Mitch Kupchak said Howard WILL have his No. 12 hanging in the rafters. There was not qualification, it was assumed he would get there.
Indeed, O'Neal had to work and win three titles to get that honor. It seemed everything was handed to Howard upon arrival and assumed to be a done deal.
Nothing is a done deal and this season has taught that Howard. As O'Neal celebrated his jersey's retirement, an age of centers likely passed.