Editor’s Note: This is “Sports Moments That Made Us Cry” week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look back at a few Lakers-related moments that brought us to tears. First up: The day the Lakers sent Shaq to the Miami Heat.
I am not much of a sports crier. I say this not to project some image of masculinity, as I will freely admit that I’ve cried a ton during my life. Just not a lot over sports.
The first time sports did bring me to tears, however, of course involved the Lakers, by far my favorite team in any sport as a kid. I remember the day well.
July 14, 2004 was just days before my 13th birthday, and the Lakers gave me the exact opposite of a present, dealing my favorite player at the time — Shaquille O’Neal — to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future first-round pick.
Never mind that Odom would go on to be a fan-favorite and instrumental part of two title teams, and that Butler would ultimately help set up the Pau Gasol trade that put those teams over the top. I didn’t know any of that then, and I was distraught.
I remember pleading with my dad, trying to get him to explain to me why the Lakers would do this. All this happened pre-social media and before I was much of an internet user, and I wasn’t allowed to watch cable unless my parents were watching, so my sources for information on this were... limited. All my dad would tell me was that Kobe Bryant and Shaq didn’t get along, so they had to trade Shaq.
“Why couldn’t they just keep playing together even if they don’t like each other?” I kept asking. “Couldn’t they just say they were sorry? Couldn’t the Lakers just make them play together?” It all seemed so simple to me. After all, for my just barely short of teenaged brain, I played basketball with my younger brother, and I didn’t like him*. Why couldn’t Kobe and Shaq just do the same?
Things, of course, were not that simple. As I’d come to learn later, there was plenty of tension between Kobe and Shaq, even when they were winning. With Kobe hitting free agency and threatening to leave for the cross-hall Clippers if the Lakers kept Shaq, and Shaq demanding a gargantuan deal despite starting to show signs of age, the Lakers, I can admit now, absolutely did the right thing by holding on to the younger superstar. It’s hard to argue about the way that one worked out, too, because even if Shaq soon won another title, Kobe eventually won two more. And as he was happy to remind us after the 2010 NBA Finals, 5>4.
But Kobe winning two more rings and eventually becoming my favorite player to ever play basketball — and someone who would teach myself and countless others lessons about work ethic and more — wasn’t something I could be aware of at the time. In 2004, I was just feeling the purest kind of anger and sadness that every sports fan can relate to, the white-hot, irrational and all-consuming combination of rage and despair that only a child can experience when their team of choice loses their favorite player.
Shaq was the guy I always wanted to pretend to be on the basketball court. I wanted to dunk like him, dominate the same way. Unfortunately, I stopped growing at around 6’4, so I missed the boat there, but as a kid, I couldn’t picture anything cooler than just dunking all over people. My brothers and I would constantly lower the rim on the hoop in our front yard so we could dunk like him. After a while, the rim looked like Shaq himself had hung on it from how much we were climbing all over it, and I think my dad was almost ready to trade us to Miami, too.
With Shaq gone, I cried, and I was upset enough that I couldn’t even imagine watching basketball anymore. I walked away until 2007, when my high school teacher made us start writing about current events from the newspaper, and I realized that Lakers games were an easy assignment. That drew me back in to the team, and luckily it was the year they broke back into contention, and ended up helping me find the career I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Covering the Lakers as a job has dulled the flames of fandom for me in a lot of ways, but there are still certain vestiges of that rooting interest that remain, like my reverence for Kobe’s approach to the game, how much I enjoy watching the Celtics go through any schadenfreude, and how seeing Shaq in a Heat jersey still looks gross and wrong to me.
I mean, look at this:
My eyes still register that as being photoshopped and cannot be convinced otherwise, no matter how long I look at the rest of his career page of Basketball-Reference. Suns and Cavs Shaq we can acknowledge, even if it’s a bit sad. Heat and Celtics Shaq does not exist in my head canon, where he retired to go play baseball like MJ before having a disappointing comeback that ended when LeBron left Cleveland. It’s a much more pleasant reality.
This might all sound bitter, and obviously in the end, the Shaq trade worked out for the Lakers. There is even an argument to be made that keeping the Shaq and Kobe Lakers together would have been detrimental to the franchise long-term. But crying about sports is usually an irrational act, and this was no exception. I had no idea how things would turn out, I was just sad my favorite player was gone. Still, it’s a good reminder that sometimes things work out, no matter how upset we are about them at the time.
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*we get along great now