When Shaquille O’Neal was a child, his stepfather, the late Sgt. Phillip Harrison, would quiz him on the greatest centers in NBA history — from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
With his own legacy as one of the best to play the game firmly established, O’Neal received the top honor that the Lakers have to give, as a bronze statue of him was unveiled at Staples Center on Friday.
And one of those legends that he grew up admiring was there to toast O’Neal’s latest accolade.
“When I look up at that statue, I will see the kind of talented, passionate and generous man that we’ve been building statues to for 30,000 years,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “And we should all be inspired to be our best selves.”
Abdul-Jabbar — who also has a statue along with Magic Johnson, Jerry West and Chick Hearn — was far from the only member of Lakers lore on hand.
The crowd included the likes of former teammates Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Gary Payton and Slava Medvedenko, while a horde of Lakers fans outlined the arena, watching on video screens from the “Shaqtown” street festival.
And while longtime Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz hosted the afternoon, O’Neal sat on stage with Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Lakers Owner Jeanie Buss and President of Staples Center Lee Zeidman.
The last of that group quipped that he feared the 9-foot, 1,200-pound depiction of O’Neal, suspended 10 feet off the ground, would end up tearing down the whole arena.
The joke stemmed from O’Neal’s tendency to break the hoop with his ferocious dunks. But that was far from the only talent that the 2000 MVP and three-time NBA Finals MVP had on the floor.
Bryant called him “the most dominant player I’ve ever seen,” while Abdul-Jabbar compared opponents guarding O’Neal to “watching those tiny, little biplanes try to take down King Kong.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s teammate and current President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson was too busy traveling for his new role to attend, but he did record a video message, telling O’Neal, “you took the city by storm with your play, but also with your personality.”
The Lakers’ former General Manager (and legend in his own right), Jerry West, grew emotional talking about O’Neal, whom he signed in free agency back in 1996.
In particular, West applauded Shaq for his community work for the city of Los Angeles.
“Behind the scenes, this was one of the most giving human beings I have ever seen in my life,” West said. “He (made) acts of kindness for a lot of people that you will never know.”
O’Neal himself packed his brief speech with humor — ranging from West’s Versace housecoat to former adversary Vlade Divac’s “flopping self.”
But he also had an idea of how he wants people that visit his statue to feel about him.
“I think they would say, ‘Here’s a guy who played with a lot of force,’” O’Neal said. “‘A guy that wanted the crowd to go crazy.’ … I always tried to dunk to intimidate my opponents, but to also make the crowd go crazy.”
Of course, O’Neal had to make the current audience go crazy as well.
Reaching back for the phrase that he used at the Lakers’ championship parades during the three-peat era, he finished his speech with a bellow.
“You know it’s coming,” he said. “Can you dig it?! Can you dig it?!”