Lakers Honor A Very Good Guy -- Shaq
When people find out I traveled with Laker teams for 23 years they often ask about the players’ personalities.
They wonder how it is to be in the company of famous athletes on a regular basis.
It would be like being close to any group of people. Some are good company, some would prefer that journalists didn’t exist.
It would serve no purpose to reveal the ones who didn’t co-operate with the media. I prefer to focus on the good guys.
Number One on my list is Magic Johnson. He was as good an ambassador for basketball as he was a player.
Even when he was a 19-year-old rookie he embraced his position in life. He immediately became a leader among teammates and the Lakers won the NBA championship in his first season.
I remember that Magic would get to know the names of the workers at the Forum, spend a few minutes with them when he arrived for a game, never be aloof.
He co-operated with myself and the other beat writers who traveled with the team. He was gracious even after a defeat, and that’s how you learn a lot about these guys.
When he became HIV-positive he didn’t hide from us. He was as up front as ever, detailing how he was going to fight the disease.
To this day we have a friendship that has stood the test of time.
Number Two on my list is Shaquille O’Neal.
Some 7-footers have a problem with being so tall. Some are uncomfortable being unable to hide from curious onlookers wherever they go.
Bit others like being in the spotlight. Wilt Chamberlain like being recognized in any crowd. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was far more private.
I met O’Neal at the Lakers’ Honolulu training camp in 1996. Within a week he was asking me about Laker history. Since he had chosen to become a Laker through free agency he wanted to embrace his role with the team and be aware of the great moments of the past.
Unlike writers from other papers I flew on the Lakers’ charter plane for many years. That way I got to know some of the players and enjoyed conversations with them on subjects beyond basketball.
Our charter frequently landed past midnight when we returned from a trip.
One time I took a cab to begin the trip and planned to take another one home when we landed, As I was waiting the players drove by, but one stopped.
“Get in,” I heard a voice say.
It was Shaq, who lived in Manhattan Beach at the time. I lived in Brentwood so it would have been out of his way.
But he didn’t mind.
Another time a substitute writer from the LA Times introduced himself following a Laker practice and began asking a long-winded question. First he offered his credentials and explained that he was subbing for Gordon Edes, the regular beat writer who was on vacation.
Shaq became impatient and asked him to get to the point. The question regarded the following night’s game. Was it merely one of the 82, nothing special? Or was it special because the opponent would be Alonzo Mourning, another of the NBA’s elite centers.
Shaq replied without hesitating.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “Tomorrow night you’ll be writing against Mitch, so you’d better be at your best.”
Last week the Lakers retired Shaq’s Number 34 in a gala halftime ceremony. Kobe Bryant, who had some well-knows disagreements with O’Neal when they were teammates, told us that time heals wounds and they now have a much better relationship.
Bryant said O’Neal deserves the honor, and I would second the notion. The big man is simply one of the game’s greatest centers.
I wasn’t in a wheelchair during my traveling days. I am now but thankfully feel well enough to continue working.
In the accompanying photo I greet O’Neal as he enters the Staples Center locker room area on his memorable night.
I will treasure the photo and the memories of those glorious years.