L.A. fans not happy to see Shaq, Riley in NBA Finals
Posted: Monday June 5, 2006 4:04PM; Updated: Wednesday June 7, 2006 1:58PM
Pat Riley and Shaquille O'Neal brought titles to L.A. Now they hope to do the same in Miami.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Submit a comment or question for Andrew.
Watching Shaquille O'Neal hug Pat Riley and tap Gary Payton on the head after defeating the Detroit Pistons to advance to the NBA Finals last week, my little brother posed an interesting question to me: "Are you happy?"
There was no simple answer to his straightforward query. I mean, how would you answer that question if your girlfriend of eight years left you and was all of a sudden marrying some dude down in South Beach? Am I supposed to be happy? I guess. I mean, we're no longer together, so why shouldn't she be happy with her Enrique Iglesias lookalike? But you know it's never that easy. It's only human to hope that she'll be miserable down there in her million-dollar villa and start wishing she'd never left my studio apartment in West Hollywood.
That's sort of the relationship most Lakers fans have with the "Los Angeles Heat" these days, and it's what makes this year's NBA Finals so confusing. On one hand you want to be happy for Shaq, Riles and GP, but on the other you can't forget how each one left. Riley abruptly stepping down in 1990 after some reported anger issues, Payton openly fighting with Phil Jackson before refusing to report to the Celtics after being traded, costing the Lakers Marcus Banks and a second-round pick, and of course, O'Neal, who's had his fair share to say about his former home after being traded to the Heat two years ago.
O'Neal is really the biggest quandary in this situation. Riley will always be adored by Lakers fans no matter how he left, and Payton was only in Los Angeles for one season and will be remembered as much for his time with the Lakers as he was for his stints in Boston and Milwaukee. Shaq, however, is a different story.
There will come a time when "the Diesel" will get his number retired alongside West, Baylor, Wilt, Goodrich, Magic, Worthy and Kareem at Staples Center, and every Lakers fan will give him a standing ovation, but it doesn't look like it will happen anytime soon. Most still can't seem to forget Shaq's comments after being traded, when he called Los Angeles a "real, real fake place," unlike Miami, which is "a more real place"; 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.
There's no doubt that O'Neal has cooled down since those remarks. He still does a great deal of charity work in Los Angeles, hasn't closed the door on mending his relationship with Buss and shockingly embraced Bryant, not once but twice, before their last meeting at Staples Center. But still, if you're a Lakers fan, can you root for Shaq? Can you root to hear him brag that he "told you so"? Judging from Lakers fans' reaction at Staples Center this season -- they cheer every time the Heat score is shown and Miami is losing or has lost -- the answer is no.
Most in Los Angeles still follow the Shaq trade like a stock market IPO. It's been mostly a down investment for the past couple of seasons, but the city was rejoicing on April 30 when the Lakers took a 3-1 series lead against the Suns and the Heat found themselves tied 2-2 to the underdog Bulls after a couple of miserable performances from O'Neal. For a couple of days, the trade looked like a stroke of genius with Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and the young Lakers following Bryant's lead to the second round while an aging O'Neal looked to be on the way to a possible first-round exit. Talk radio stations were filled with callers bragging not only about the success of the Lakers but also about the demise of O'Neal. We all know how that script ended. The Lakers proceeded to lose three straight, the Heat went on to win two straight and are now four wins away from their first world championship.
While a part of me wishes that Payton and O'Neal had found their fountain of youth two years ago, when the Pistons embarrassed the Lakers in the Finals, I turned to my brother after Miami had eliminated Detroit and told him that I was happy for them. Happy not only for O'Neal, Payton and Riley but also for former Lakers coach and current Heat general manger Randy Pfund, former Lakers and current Heat assistant coach Bob McAdoo and any other former Lakers who had switched their allegiances to the Heat. After all, as Shaq told me after ending his feud with Kobe in January, "Life's too short to have enemies."