A jersey retirement ceremony is supposed to be a momentous celebration, when a franchise chooses to highlight an individual who has contributed greatly to the franchise's history. Usually, these are joyous occasions when all of the greats from a franchise will come out to welcome the newest member of the club. Last night's ceremony to put Shaquille O'Neal's jersey in the rafters had all of that, but it also had a strange, awkward vibe that was telling of the tangled, and not all together positive, relationships that entwine the most recent eras of Lakers basketball.
It all starts with Shaq and Kobe. Has there ever been an era for any professional sports team which produced so much success, but also so much drama and hostility? Behind Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers took the league by storm en route to three championships, but just when it seemed like they were just getting started, everything fell apart. Kobe and Shaq's relationship deteriorated to the point of open hostility, Kobe frustrated and disrespected Phil Jackson so much that PJ called him uncoachable, and everything culminated in a messy double divorce with only Kobe left standing on the team. Of course, PJ came back to prove that Kobe was indeed coachable after all, winning two more championships with Mamba-led teams. But Shaq and Kobe, from "Tell me how my ass tastes" to "I got one more than Shaq" have never fully let bygones be bygones.
Oh sure, time has dulled their animosity to a low simmer, enough that they can put on smiles and give each other fist bumps, but when Kobe did a rather tepid taped introduction for Shaq's ceremony last night, I thought it was clear that the two superstars who did so much for each other still aren't exactly friends. But hey, at least Kobe could manage that much. His speech may not have been inspirational, but he at least provided recognition of Shaq's importance to the Lakers, and also to him. Shaq could not be bothered to do the same. In Shaq's roughly 5 minute "Thank you" speech, he showed his gratitude to his coach Phil Jackson, to his GM Jerry West, to the Lakers organization, and to fans ranging from Jack Nicholson to Adam Sandler. Kobe's name never touched his lips.
And Kobe and Shaq's decade old beef wasn't the only sidebar to the evening. Not with LA's newest center following a remarkably similar path to super-stardom as the giant man being celebrated on the evening. Dwight Howard has unintentionally followed Shaq's every footstep, from being drafted to the same team in South Florida to having the same nickname to having the same goofy persona wrapped up in a body way bigger and stronger than anybody else's. Now, he's found his way to Los Angeles just as Shaq did, and Shaq being the man-child that he is, he's never taken all that kindly to Dwight. He never misses an opportunity to take a dig at Howard. Like last night, when asked if he hoped the Lakers would win more championships with Kobe, he said "I hope they will, but ... the other guy needs to step into his own", not even willing to acknowledge who the other guy is. He's routinely taken shots at Dwight's game, including dubbing everybody from Andrew Bynum to Brook Lopez as better centers than Dwight Howard.
And that's not all. The presence of Phil Jackson added another layer of subterfuge to the evening, and surely made the evening an awkward affair for the Lakers' current head coach, Mike D'Antoni. It can't be easy to hear your team's fans chanting in unison for another head coach, especially when that coach was apparently considered before you were brought on board. Because of the circumstances of his hire, and the stunning details around Phil Jackson's not-hire, coach D'Antoni will forever be the step-mother to his own fan base. Last night, that fan base might as well have been chanting "You're not my mom". Hell, the Lakers are lucky that Jeanie Buss remains both a connection to Phil Jackson and a willing and able ambassador of the Lakers organization. If Jim Buss had been forced to take center stage, he probably would have gotten booed by the Lakers faithful, and another awkward moment could have been added to the pile.
Last night, Shaquille O'Neal had his #34 immortalized in the rafters of Staples Center, and it was everything you would want it to be. A chance to re-live the glory of the past, an opportunity to pay tribute to one of the greatest players in our organization's fine history. But it was also more than that. From Shaq and Kobe to Shaq and Dwight, it was a night where you could see petty rivalries simmering just below the surface. From Jeanie Buss' introduction to Phil Jackson's speech, to the "We Want Phil" chants drowning out Shaq's laughter, it was a reminder that Lakers fans are having a difficult time adjusting from past glory to the tumultuous present. All in all, a surreal experience for an event that is normally all sunshine and butterflies.