It was the summer of 1996, and I was a small boy, excited on this day because my favorite team had just signed a very large man.
He was bigger than life, already, even at just 24 years old. He was going to usher in a new era for my franchise, to bring us back to glory, and he was going to do it in a way no one else had done before.
And he did.
The Lakers of the 1980s entertained Los Angeles basketball fans with a style and charisma never before seen. Their coach wore Armani suits and slicked back hair; he looked like he should be in a swanky hotel room making business deals or putting his arm around pretty girls by the dozen.
Oh wait, it was their owner who did those things. He was a man who loved to play poker, who loved the L.A. nightlife as much as the players. But he wasn’t a control freak. He trusted management around him to make the wisest decisions so his team would excel on the court.
That team was Showtime, led by the Magic Man, the one who revolutionized the point guard position, or maybe not, because still to this day there has never been another like him.
Never short on charisma, Magic embodied ’80s culture in Los Angeles: excess, success, and fun.
But here came the ’90s, and the Lakers were no longer the main event. A big man in Orlando was taking over the league with his play and his own style and swagger: he pounded balls into the cheap seats, he brought down backboards like Sampson brought down pillars, and his personality made every Hollywood agent perk up and take notice. Sure, he could be moody, and petty. But he was also dominant, playful, and fun.
He was just what the Lakers needed.
Shaquille O’Neal enters the Basketball Hall of Fame today, and rightfully so. But this ocassion is forcing me to look back, and thankfully there’s a bunch of good stuff to look back on.
Shaq was my first jersey, a Christmas present in fifth grade. He was the dude that made me say, I can’t believe this guy’s on my team. I always chose him over Kobe, because while Kobe morphed from a fresh-faced teen who smiled a lot to a fierce personality who became (and remained) divisive until his retirement, Shaq was just Shaq; the man of many nicknames, the guy who embarrassed David Robinson and Arvydas Sabonis at the rim time and again. He was the guy who flipped his hands up like visors on the side of his face after killer alley-oops (something Kobe actually copied while he was in high school. How about that?)
Sixty-one points on his birthday. The Sacramento Queens. This Cheers parody killing the Queens.
He was an original. The first NBA Superman (get outta here, Dwight). He was Kazaam. So what if it was a silly kids movie? The fact that he was even in a highly promoted summer movie spoke volumes to me back then. I can’t believe that guy’s on my team!.
He also delivered. You can talk about his missed free throws, or how he and Kobe threw away the chance to win more championships. But years later, I choose to remember the alley-oop from Kobe against the Blazers. I choose to remember his 2000 season, where he should have became the first unanimous MVP in history instead of Steph Curry of last season.
I choose to remember the 2001 Lakers, where Shaq was even more impossible to stop once the playoffs started than he was in 2000. And in Game 7 in 2002 against the Kings, I remember his turnaround one-handed jumper from eight feet out on the baseline late in overtime. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he made the shot, which tied the game. It may not have been a basket everyone talks about now, but for whatever reason, it made me believe the Lakers would prevail in what remains the greatest series I’ve ever seen played.
So who cares about everything that’s happened since then? The trade, the championship in Miami, the other stops in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston … it doesn’t make much of a difference to me.
In 1996 the Lakers needed something big. The day after he signed, I pulled into my school at summer day camp on my bike. As I entered the parking lot, Mr. Kennedy, who had been my second grade teacher and was the camp director then, yelled at me from the balcony above.
“Brandon! We got him! We got him!!!”
The next eight years that followed were pretty damn awesome.
Shaq, man. We got Shaq. Can you believe that guy played on our team? Because I can’t.