It’s hard to pinpoint a specific memory to define Shaquille O’Neal. The fact that most basketball fans can remember him in the context of their own lives should prove to be a testiment of his legacy as a player.
Whether you were watching him tear down backboards like no one before or since, or sat glued to your grainy, pre-HD television as Kobe lobbed a thunderous alley-oop to cement their first trip to the NBA Finals, Shaq’s “larger than life” persona on and off the court was one that we will probably never see again.
Many will look to that same persona as the same one that caused the rift between him and Kobe Bryant that halted their title run at three. For years after the Laker-Heat trade that sent the embittered Shaq to Miami, the two rarely positively acknowledged one another, only clearing the air in the last few years as the two shared Co-MVP honors during the 2009 All-Star Game.
Still though, Shaq contended in an interview with J.A. Adande that the premature departure from Los Angeles left a lot of champioships on the table:
“I don’t like to live in a world of ifs,” Shaq said. “But if we would have stayed, possibly we could have got six.”
Despite their personal alpha-dog conflicts, Shaq himself will tell you that Bryant was the best he had ever played with in his time in the NBA, as he did with the Sporting News in 2009:
“Most ferocious was Kobe. Fiercest, most competitive, it was Kobe. D-Wade is second after that.”
In the context of Lakers lore, Shaq is in no way the greatest Laker. Looking at it, he isn’t even the greatest import when considering the work that Kareem Abdul-Jabaar put in during the 1970s and Showtime era of the 1980s. With three championships and an MVP trophy during his tenure with the purple and gold, though, it’s hard not to glorify Shaq in his prime, players bouncing off of his bedsheet-sized jersey as he muscled his way to the basket.