“LeBron [James] and myself are similar,” O’Neal told SI.com earlier this month in Atlanta. “We could be MVP every year. But [the voters] don’t give it every year and he’s already got four. [I should have won] three, easily. Kobe should have won three, too. [I should have won] the two that Steve Nash got over me. It pisses me off. [Nash] knows.” For the record, O’Neal retired in 2011 with five top-three MVP finishes, eight top-five finishes and 13 top-10 finishes. He was runner-up to Robinson in 1995, runner-up to Nash in 2005, and injured for a good chunk of the 2006 season when Nash won his second MVP. Even O’Neal’s sole MVP win remains a sore spot, though, as he was one vote shy of becoming the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. Warriors guard Stephen Curry claimed that honor last year.
“The one where that crazy dummy Fred Hickman f—ed up my historical [unanimous MVP] so now Curry gets the first unanimous,” O’Neal said. “That bothers me a lot.” O’Neal, now a commentator at TNT, admitted to reporters Friday that he “definitely misses playing.” With his Hall of Fame induction complete, his No. 34 jersey hanging in the Staples Center rafters, and now his statue out front, O’Neal’s legendary status is secure. But the competitive spirit that drove him to punish Robinson and the Spurs, to prove to Abdul-Jabbar that he was a champion, and to butt heads with Bryant continues to seep through. Beneath the jokes and pranks, O’Neal still wants his due.
Shaq was more comfortable in his giant skin than any other NBA big man, but the flip side of that was he wanted to be liked. He would joke, but he wasn’t happy unless he got the immediate feedback of hearing people laugh at his jokes. He’d keep mental notes at who was standing around his locker and who would leave to head over to Kobe’s. And he wanted his jersey retired in L.A. It was something he talked about since his arrival and something he found himself still wondering about the possibility during a conversation in the Staples Center visitor’s locker room while he was playing for the Phoenix Suns.
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Jeanie Buss said this was set in motion from the day they broke ground on Staples Center and Shaq said it would be a good idea to have statues outside it one day. “I always liked to look ahead,” Shaq said. “That was one of the ways that always motivated me, was looking ahead. I understand business and all that. I was there when they did all the renderings, and the boom and the bam. They did the groundbreaking and I knew how it was going to look and where everything was going to be, the locker rooms and all that. It would be nice if we could put some statues out here. And it all came true.”
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With his raw power and a larger-than-life personality to match his listed 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame, O’Neal always seemed a perfect fit in the entertainment capital of the world. Among many memorable moments, O’Neal’s former Lakers teammates have had trouble forgetting one that left them chuckling in horror. “I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”