Shaq: Dwight Howard must step up
LOS ANGELES -- On the night that Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34 jersey was retired, the "Big Aristotle" was asked to predict if another Los Angeles Lakers championship banner would be raised to the rafters before Kobe Bryant retires.
"I hope they will but I'm a big-man guy," O'Neal said. "The other guy needs to step into his own."
The "other guy," of course, is Dwight Howard, who O'Neal has tweaked in the press time and time again.
It was no different on Tuesday as O'Neal was immortalized along with the Lakers legendary line of centers and used the occasion to fire up Howard to follow the same path.
"I would like to see him average 28 (points) and 10 (rebounds)," O'Neal said. "That's the number that was thrown in my face, 28 and 10, so that's the number I'm always going to throw in his face."
Howard came pretty close to those numbers Tuesday, scoring 24 points and adding 12 rebounds in the Lakers' 101-81 win over the Mavericks.
The Shaq Challenge
While Dwight Howard ranks third in the NBA (behind Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James) with 80 games of 28 points and 10 rebounds since joining the league in 2004-05, Howard has a ways to go to match Shaq and leader Karl Malone.
|Note: Howard has played 690 games|
Howard, in his ninth season, has averaged 18.2 points and 13.0 rebounds in his career. He's averaging 16.7 points and 12.7 rebounds this season while he recovers from offseason back surgery and a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
"I'm not criticizing the guy; I'm just issuing a challenge," O'Neal said. "I see a kid with a lot of talent. When I see him averaging 16 or 18 (points), that's not enough for me."
What was enough time for O'Neal was the eight seasons he spent with the Lakers. Even though O'Neal said "of course" he could have won more than the three championships and four Finals appearances he paired with Bryant to achieve, he said it was time to go in 2004.
"It wasn't all about just because me and (Bryant)," O'Neal said of the Lakers' dismantling of their championship core when he was traded to the Miami Heat. "It was just the business of basketball. Luckily, for me the way I was raised, I'm used to doing something different every four years. So, I looked at it like I spent two military tenures here. I was in L.A. eight years. It was just time for me to do something else. It was time for Kobe to come into his own. It was time for me to go somewhere else."
Even as O'Neal finished off his career with Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston, his relationship with Bryant, or lack thereof, remained a constant curiosity.
"We've talked a lot since our playing days," said O'Neal, revealing that he and Bryant officially buried the hatchet when they were named co-MVPs of the 2009 All-Star Game and Bryant offered the trophy to O'Neal's son, Shareef, to keep.
"I had a conversation with the great Bill (Plaschke) today and I had to kind of explain to him that there's two different types of dislikes. There's an athletic dislike and there's a real dislike. We never had a real dislike.
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"Every time I see his lovely wife and his beautiful children, I always go to his children and say, 'Hello, babies. I'm uncle Shaq.' So, you know we had a couple arguments and disagreements. We had a million good times and a thousand bad times. But, as a leader, it was my job to just focus on the past and I did that. Leaders, sometimes when you focus on the task, the relationship dwindles. But if I had it all over to do it again, would I do it different? Probably not."
Bryant taped a message for O'Neal that was shown on the video screen during the halftime ceremony.
"Congratulations to you, the most gifted physical specimen I've ever seen play this game with size and agility," Bryant said to uproarious applause.
As loud as the building got for Bryant's message, the din reached a fever pitch when the microphone was handed over to Phil Jackson.
"We want Phil!" chants poured out of the crowd, which was on its feet.
Jackson focused on the fun that team had with O'Neal at the helm, recalling the "indelible images" of O'Neal showing up to practice late wearing nothing but sneakers and another time when O'Neal showed the Sacramento Kings what a "full moon really looked like" when the Lakers left Arco Arena following Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals.
The fans picked up their "We want Phil!" chant again after O'Neal's jersey had been unveiled with the "Superman" theme playing over the public-address system. O'Neal simply laughed and allowed the chant to reverberate throughout the arena before continuing his speech.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was back in the locker room with the team and not on the court while Jackson was cheered but was asked about the 11-time championship coach's presence before the game.
"I don't listen to you guys, so I don't know," D'Antoni said. "I'm pedaling as hard as I can, trying to get us to win, trying to get us in the playoffs. We're doing everything we can. There's no influence (from Jackson on me). There's nothing there."
Someone Jackson clearly has an influence over, his fiancee, Jeanie Buss, also spoke during the halftime ceremony.
"My two favorite words (to describe O'Neal) are champion, and most of all, Laker," Buss said. "From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for always entertaining us with your talent, your sense of humor and most of all the winning."
"Can you dig it?" O'Neal bellowed at the start and toward the end of his remarks, echoing his cry from one of the Lakers' championship parades.
O'Neal said the testy relationship with Bryant may have actually helped L.A. achieve the success it did, rather than hamper its chances.
"The task was to win championships. We won three out of four," O'Neal said. "If we would have tried to be all buddy, buddy, it might have went differently."
O'Neal was asked if he had any regrets from his 19-year career that featured four championships, three Finals MVP awards, one regular season MVP, two scoring titles, Rookie of the Year and 15 All-Star appearances.
He has two: "I missed 200 games. I missed 5,000 free throws. Other than that, I had fun. I did it my way. It was a great experience."
The always jovial O'Neal started off his pregame news conference and halftime ceremony on a somber note, acknowledging the death of Dr. Jerry Buss who passed away in February.
It was Buss' decision to retire O'Neal's jersey this season rather than wait until after the big man had been inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame as has been the tradition of the franchise.
"I wish the great Mr. Jerry Buss was here," O'Neal said. "This process usually takes a long time, but it's because of him that it's happening this early in my retirement."
O'Neal also fought back tears when asked what it means to him to see his name recognized next to some of the best centers ever to play the game in Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan for the rest of time.
"My father told me it could happen and I believed him," O'Neal said. "That's why I developed a style of play that he designed for me to play. He knew I was going to be bigger and stronger than everybody. That's why I developed that style. It was a style that he developed for me. I could have gone with the finesse and tried to shoot jumpers, but he was like, 'Play this way, play this way, it will pay off for you in the long run.' And, I guess it has."