LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Lakers honored Shaquille O’Neal with a bronze statue of the Hall of Fame center who helped them to three consecutive NBA titles in better days outside Staples Center on Friday.
With his youngest son pulling a gold braided cord to drop a shiny gold curtain, O’Neal laid eyes upon something bigger than the big man himself. The statue of him completing a monster dunk with his legs in the air is 9 feet and weighs 1,200 pounds. It is suspended 10 feet in the air, attached to the arena’s side. O’Neal is 7-foot-1 and was 325 in his playing days.
“This was very unexpected,” said O’Neal, dressed in a cornflower blue and yellow plaid suit.
Purple and gold confetti and streamers rained down on O’Neal, his family and some of the biggest names in NBA history, including Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant, all of whom spoke at the hour-long ceremony.
Fittingly, O’Neal’s statue is near one of West, one of eight outside the arena.
“This is a unique man. I loved him like a son,” said West, who arrived late after being caught in traffic.
O’Neal thanked his teammates, including a bearded Bryant, who as a teenager famously feuded with O’Neal during their run to three titles from 2000-02.
“Brother, thank you,” O’Neal said, turning toward Bryant. “We had our battles, we had our times but we always had respect for each other.”
Earlier, Bryant spoke as fans held back by barricades chanted his name.
“Most dominant player I’ve ever seen,” he said, mimicking O’Neal’s deep voice. “I learned so much from you as a player.”
Glancing at O’Neal’s six children seated in the front row, Bryant said, “Kids, you should know your dad was a bad man.”
Tahirah O’Neal, who at 20 is the oldest, said the best years of the kids’ lives were watching their father play for the Lakers.
“We admire everything about you,” she said. “You’re hilarious. Despite you thinking the earth is flat – it’s not flat – you’re one of the smartest people I know.”
Last week on his podcast, O’Neal agreed with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving that the earth is flat.
O’Neal expressed regret that late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his stepfather Philip Harrison weren’t there.
At times, the big man wiped his eyes as he gazed out on his mother Lucille O’Neal, former LSU coach Dale Brown, and a slew of former teammates including Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, current Lakers coach Luke Walton, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Alonzo Mourning, Ron Harper, Mark Madsen and A.C. Green.
Others in the crowd were Elgin Baylor, Gary Payton, Jamaal Wilkes, Horace Grant, Mitch Richmond and James Worthy.
Phil Jackson, who presided over the delicate O’Neal-Bryant relationship during the Lakers’ three-peat, recalled meeting O’Neal for the first time at his Montana lake home in the summer of 1999.
Jackson arrived to see O’Neal doing gainers off the pier and zipping in circles on a jet ski in the lake.
“My goal with Shaq was to have him close down the extracurricular activities. That was the hard part,” said Jackson, who shared the stage with former fiancée and Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss.
Looking across the street at swarms of fans, O’Neal singled them out.
“I heard you at games when I was missing free throws,” he said. “Thank you for staying on me.”
Then he paused, gathered himself and warned them what was coming.
“Can you dig it?” he bellowed, unleashing one of his famous expressions.