Not that anyone should be surprised. Much of this was chronicled in The Bee during the best years of the Kings-Lakers rivalry. But Shaquille O'Neal has always privately (and not so privately) enjoyed an affinity for Sacramento, his comments about "cowtown" and "Sacramento Queens" notwithstanding. When he wasn't dunking over Scot Pollard and Vlade Divac during his visits with the Lakers - OK, and keeping the Kings from their first NBA championship in 2002 - he was strolling the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, chatting with fans, and graciously posing for photos. Kids in particular love him. Other times, he was off at the shooting range with former Sheriff Lou Blanas, prepping for his afterlife as a deputy sheriff. Can you imagine?.
Last night, as the featured speaker at the annual St. HOPE dinner at the Hyatt Regency, he was, as usual, absolutely hilarious. (I swear I even saw Jerry Reynolds laughing, in spite of himself and his Kings loyalty). Shaq danced onto the stage wearing an Afro wig and lip-synching to the The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." He almost immediately mentioned the incongruity of being asked by Sacramento native Kevin Johnson to speak at his event - that Kings rivalry indeed lives - and said he initially told KJ he was crazy to ask him to attend, given his mayoral aspirations. "I told him, 'People hate me there," related Shaq, who agreed to make the trip anyway.
Referring to a visit earlier in the day to the Boys & Girls Club, Shaq added, "Everyone is going 'Shaq, Shaq!, and one little kid says, 'Shaq, but you still (stink) at free throws!' " He went on to say that his verbal shots about Sacramento all those years "were all about marketing. As you know, Sacramento is a beautiful town. The people here, you guys got us playing at a high level ... and without you guys, I wouldn't have four rings!"
I have known Shaq since his days at LSU - his former attorney/representative and I were law school classmates - and because I worked in Atlanta for eight years, we spent a lot of time together (Olympics, NBA Finals, Orlando Magic, etc.). Thus, there is no doubt in my mind that he left the Magic for the Lakers in 1996 because he couldn't resist the overtures of the legendary Jerry West, I can also tell you that he was more than a little hurt when the Maloofs (per Geoff Petrie's counsel) didn't pursue him when his relationship soured with Kobe Bryant. Shaq liked Sacramento that much. He has always been a small town guy - he kept a home in Orlando during his years with the Lakers, and spent most of his offseason there. He absolutely hated L.A. traffic. Once, during a preseason trip to San Diego, we drove to the nearby San Diego Zoo, and he spent most of the time complaining about the traffic (and playing around with the GPS system, looking for escape routes).
No doubt about it. When asked what I like best about covering the NBA all these years (and in all these cities), I always respond that it's the people. Shaq has long been one of my Fab Fives, as is Charles Barkley, who might be the only NBA type who is even funnier than The Diesel .
I have to agree with my colleague, Scott Howard-Cooper, who visited with Shaq earlier in the day. Shaq looks good. Though suits can be deceiving, and are effective at hiding excess weight, the Phoenix Suns center (that still sounds strange) appeared slim and surprisingly fit given that training camp doesn't begin until next week.