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Lakers put the glitz back in L.A. sports

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000

Channel Eight-Ball gave us an un-Storm Team-interrupted look, all through the gushing championship moment, with multimillionaire huggings, plus movie-star gushings, when Tiger O'Neal finally won the big one.

Shaqing Up with the Lakers. Got to be an R-rated movie. Not even Spielberg should fiddle with the script. Big town, big guy win big. Nobody but O'Neal can play the lead role.

Those guys in baggy L.A. gold, they're a megacarat conqueror, climaxed by the outbasketballing of Indiana, capital of hoop sport.

Larry Legend couldn't crash La-La-Land's party. If he'd been young enough to play, who knows? Reggie Miller didn't come home again and lambaste Lakers he adored as a Southern California teen.

Phil Jackson returns as lord of the NBA rings, coming back from Montana, the moon or wherever he went after a six-pack of Chicago Bulls championships.

No longer is it Lost Angeles, megalopolis of shortfalling athletics, where the NFL no longer exists, Dodgers don't rule anymore, Angels never did, Kings and Ducks are also-ran pucks, UCLA/USC have fallen from ultimate sports greatness and Clippers still can't find a way to not be Clippers.

In the '80s, L.A. was jock joy. O'Neal was but a baby giant in Texas when Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the Lakers on top for the last of five times.

There were pro football Rams in town, even Raiders, winners of Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa during their Coliseum miniresidency. Baseball was hot in an L.A. stretch of Ryan, Garvey, Lasorda and Carew.

There arose an across-America chant: "Beat L.A.!" Eventually, everybody pretty much did. Oscars and Emmys became the only giant trophies in town.

Then came a trendy Monday, when Lakers won again for Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon, triggering Merlot toasts in Century City, allowing Coach Zen NBA rings not only for both thumbs but both pinkies, leaving him a couple of cigars short of Red Auerbach.

Michael Jackson (no kin to Phil, believe me) was probably one-glove high-fiving at Neverland. Bob Hope, at 97, got one more smile. Schwarzenegger flexed. Leno chinned. Hollywood Boulevard did a 21-hooker salute. Regis Philbin asked, "Oh, so that is your Finals answer?"

Beyond the glitz, there was heroic sweat. Much of it tumbling off the shaved size-8 head of Shaquille O'Neal, who has powerfully nudged into the upper row of NBA pivot greatness, alongside Bill Russell and two Laker exes, Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

Remember him, Orlando?

Kobe Bryant is good, truly special in his youth, but to utter comparisons with Michael Jordan is as ludicrous as to suggest Peyton Manning has approached the quarterbacking grandeur of Joe Montana (no kin to the state where Coach Zen has roamed).

Kid Kobe is 21. Let him expand to at least 25 or 26 before Jordanian whispers become admissible. He's better than Michael was at 21, but that's no more than a hubcap on a Rolls-Royce.

Before any all-time coronations, Bryant must first separate himself in ability and wonderworks from contemporaries Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. He's just one of today's jewels. Kobe could be a Hall of Famer who never scales Shaq Mountain, becoming best on his own team.

It can be difficult, being so comparatively mortal, for many of us outsiders to feel a vaultload of true compassion for O'Neal, a 7-foot-1, 335-pound athlete with two mansions, six fancy driving machines and $40-million in the bank at age 28.

I'm just guessing about his money. O'Neal may not be the fiscal match of Tiger Woods, but No. 34's net worth is far bigger than his Superman-tattooed biceps.

I felt good for Shaq. Seeing size-XXXL tears streak the voluminous face after Game 6's totally televised conquest of the Pacers. Despite his worldly fame, individual honors and personal riches, O'Neal had never won a championship, in the pros, college or high school, and maybe not even in backyard Texas pickup games.

No matter his Herculean bulk, ungodly talents and extreme wealth, the big bloke has worked extraordinarily hard in pursuit of greatness. Not unlike his Isleworth neighbor from back in O-Town, golf colossus Tiger.

Maybe now, even Fred Hickman of CNN will vote for Shaq. This was a legitimate Jordan-like season for the L.A. wide body, as MVP of the season, the playoffs and the All-Star Game. Unanimously phenomenal.

As for Los Angeles ...

It is easier to feel community warmth for a Green Bay, a Boston, a Chicago, an Atlanta or a St. Louis when the highest of pro sports trophies is claimed. Los Angeles is so huge, so complex, so diverse, so weird.

Sadly, the Porsche-wheeling, Armani-clad, diamond-glittering phonies from Rodeo Drive will be living high all week, like they had something to do with what Shaq, Kobe and Coach Zen achieved. But that's part of it. Sweet shivers all around.

It's a feeling I want Tampa Bay to experience. We've got a shot with the Bucs. Devil Rays are showing June flashes of promise. Lightning people keep promising. We're no L.A., which isn't a bad thing, but whopper Tampa Bay dues have been paid. My neighbors deserve a moment that compares to Monday eve in La-La Land.

Channel 8 will cover.

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