Of the 19 seasons that made up the recently wrapped NBA career of Shaquille O'Neal, eight were spent in Los Angeles. Those years, stretching from the summer of 1996 through the summer of 2004, were enormously important ones for him. He came here to make it big, and unlike a lot of people with the same idea, Shaq pulled it off. Here in L.A. he became the game's most valuable player and a three-time champion. With the help of Jerry Buss, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and especially Phil Jackson, he tore away the labels that stigmatized him early in his career - those that accused him of being a one-dimensional dunker, or overly concerned with off-court pursuits, or unwilling to improve his skillset or make his teammates better - and seized his position among the all-time greats.
They were important years as well for Los Angeles. When the Lakers put Shaq on a plane to Miami in 2004, the city he left behind rather was different from the one that greeted him in the mid-‘90s. And Shaq himself was part of the reason it became different. His decision to sign with the Lakers in 1996 brought much-needed pep to a city whose energies had been flagging. His Godzilla-like play helped restore the Lakers to preeminence in our urban culture, and that in turn helped goose a revitalization of downtown L.A. and of Angelenos' civic confidence. Shaq needed Los Angeles to satisfy his appetite for celebrity, but we needed him just as much.
The first half of the 1990's were not a super-happy time in Southern California. The Rodney King ordeal and subsequent riots revealed and inflamed a seething collective anger. The Northridge earthquake in 1994 added another dollop of trauma. Our economy was cut off at the knees by the end of the Cold War and withdrawal of Pentagon largesse that funded the local aerospace boom. Though the city notionally remained the center of the movie industry, even that component of our identity was starting to wither as studios more and more elected to move production to Canada, Louisiana and other locales offering tasty tax scams.
On the sports scene, things weren't much cheerier. Showtime was gone. Magic Johnson had HIV. Tommy Lasorda had a heart attack. In a span of months we lost custody of not one but two NFL teams. For a city constantly struggling against sprawl and fragmentation, these were not insignificant setbacks. They removed or diminished once-potent symbols of urban unity. They contributed to a sense that here in L.A., the linear progress promised by modernity had been stopped and thrown into reverse. L.A. just wasn't a place where people wanted to be. Be it the NFL or the Defense Department or people fed up with gangs, riots and a racist police department, it felt like anyone who could get the hell out of Dodge was happy to do so.
Shaq called a halt to this downward trend. When Jerry West seduced him away from Orlando, it not only made rooting for the Lakers cool again - it revalidated the city as a destination for global elites. Shaq wasn't just a star basketball player. He was a star basketball player whom even non-basketball fans knew about. And he was a perfect match for Los Angeles. His game struck many as pure spectacle but in truth contained hidden depths. He was fluent in the idiom of pop culture. Like a Spielbergian dinosaur, he was a scary-but-captivating predator that didn't normally exist in nature. His mix of goofy showmanship and commanding talent aligned perfectly with how we wanted to see ourselves.
With Shaq on board, it became clear that the post-Magic Laker decline would be very temporary. Kobe of course would prove at least as important in the late-‘90s renaissance, but few of us understood at the time how great he would be. Shaq was the known quantity. It was his arrival that changed the psychology of the Laker fan and reactivated our imperial ambitions.
His signing also lent crucial momentum to the drive for a new downtown arena. In the summer of 1996 the Lakers were still playing at the Forum and Staples Center was far from a sure thing. They wouldn't break ground on Staples for nearly two more years. But with Shaq on board and the Lakers once again the city's premier entertainment entity, Staples had its ideal anchor tenant. Credit financing from Bank into America fell into place, and construction got done in an astonishing 18 months. Obviously a number of economic and urban-planning goals were at work in the Staples development, but let's just say the place wasn't built to host Clipper games. It was built to charge top dollar for the uppermost tier of live events, and for that it needed a championship-caliber Laker team.
In 1999, Staples opened to rave reviews, just as Phil Jackson arrived in town. This was the sort of luck that Los Angeles just couldn't pull earlier in the decade. The Lakers and Staples Center became twin emblems of success and proof there was more to L.A. than the O.J. trial and River Phoenix dying outside the Viper Room. Downtown, for the first time since the ‘60s, became a place people were OK spending time in after 6:00 p.m. Los Angeles seemed to have some of its toxicity drained out.
I'm not trying to sell you on some unified theory of Shaquillean determinism. I just think Shaq delivered a lot of happiness to L.A., and the psychic benefits of his Lakerdom bounced and echoed around the city in cool ways. But it had to be Shaq specifically. Had Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon joined the Lakers instead, they would be as much respected but not nearly so close to our heart. Shaq was the one we were destined to love, and vice versa.
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