Posted: Thursday June 9, 2005 1:16PM; Updated: Thursday June 9, 2005 1:16PM
Shaquille O'Neal can't show his face in Los Angeles anymore.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
He was the most beloved man in Los Angeles. His stature in the city was far greater than his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame and more valuable than his $120 million contract. He asked Angelenos if they could dig it and dig it and dig it again as he lead the Lakers to three straight NBA championships. But those days are nothing more than a distant memory now.
While Shaquile O'Neal will forever be apart of Lakers history, the town he once ruled has done to Shaq what he so quickly did to them. They've turned their back on him.
It wasn't supposed to be like this, but these kind of things happen when the person you loved for so long leaves you for someone else and keeps in touch just to remind you how much better they are without you and how terrible you were when you were together.
That's essentially what Shaq did to the city of Los Angeles and Lakers fans this season. They wanted to root for him, they wanted to see him do well, they wanted him to show Lakers management they made a mistake in trading him (even after Shaq turned down an extension that would have made him the highest player in league history), but The Diesel wouldn't let them.
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Instead of acting like the helpless victim in his trade to the Heat, which is what the media painted him out to be, he took every shot he could at his former team and city. He called Los Angeles a "real, real fake place" unlike Miami which is "a more real place," he called Lakers owner Jerry Buss a joke and an "old man," and called Kobe Bryant "the other guy" and an "arrogant" player who he wanted to hit at times.
Now no one is disputing that some parts of Los Angeles are, ahem, fake, or that the Lakers' 71-year-old owner is over the hill or that Bryant is a narcissist who would have no problem renaming the Lakers the Kobes, but no one in Los Angeles wanted to hear it from Shaq. While the Lakers, Buss and Bryant usually took the high road whenever Shaq's name came up, Shaq never turned down a chance to put down the Lakers.
The constant bashing of the Lakers left a bad taste in the mouth of L.A. fans who no longer looked at Shaq as one of their own as they took up the age old motto that it's the name on the front of the jersey that counts, not the name on the back. After all, Shaq made his feeling about the city known after he sold his Beverly Hills mansion and cut off all his ties to California within days of being traded to the Heat last summer.
The feeling Lakers fans have toward Shaq was never more evident than during the Eastern Conference Finals when the Heat were eliminated by the same Pistons squad that beat L.A. in last year's Finals. Most Lakers fans despise Shaq so much now that they rooted for the hated Pistons.
After the series was over, Los Angeles sports talk stations such as The Ticket 1540, XTRA 570 and ESPN 710 were flooded with calls from Lakers fans saying how happy they were that Shaq was out of the playoffs and how watching him lose in the playoffs was almost as satisfying as watching the Lakers win. When the final score of the Heat-Pistons game was announced during the Dodgers-Tigers game at Chavez Ravine, the crowd erupted as if Eric Gagne were coming out of the bullpen, and it wasn't just the Tigers fans who were cheering. "Good," said one Dodgers fan sitting in the upper deck with his two sons. "No one wanted to see the fat man win anyway."
Watching the Heat lose in the playoffs doesn't change the Lakers' disastrous situation or the fact that they made one of the worst trades in sports history. The Purple and Gold are still without a coach and are years away from competing for anything more than a playoff spot, but Lakers fans have managed to find solace in the time they have to rebuild, while the Heat's championship window with Shaq is closing with each passing day.
If Miami had not made the trade for Shaq, it's not hard to imagine it would have still ended the season in the same fashion judging from Wade's marketed improvement and the cohesiveness he had built with younger players such as Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Rafer Alston, as the Heat nearly reached the conference finals last season. The problem for Miami fans, however, is that while that team might have had a decade to gel and contend for titles, the current squad has only about two or three more years with a deteriorating Shaq before they have to go through a similar rebuilding process as the Lakers.
Shaq was brought in for one reason, to win the championship, and if he doesn't deliver, his time in Miami will be thought of much like his stay in Orlando --- more for what it could have been rather that for what it was.
With Shaq coming off yet another nagging injury (he hasn't played an entire season injury free in a decade) and due for a huge contract extension this summer, which could cool down whatever motivation he had entering this season, it seems more and more likely that his most recent trip to Florida will end much like his first --- without a championship --- and as odd as it may sound, that is the best news Lakers fans have going for them these days.