In all, they looked like old friends, not like former teammates whose bitter feud split apart one of the most dominant NBA duos in history.
The Los Angeles Lakers icons reunited Friday as a 1,500-pound bronze statue depicting O'Neal dunking was unveiled at Star Plaza outside Staples Center, where O'Neal and Bryant won three consecutive titles together in the early 2000s.
"Some people thought the odds of Kobe Bryant showing up today were the same as Shaq sinking a free throw," Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.
O'Neal said afterward that it "meant a lot" that Bryant attended the event, which featured many Lakers icons, including their ex-Lakers coach, Phil Jackson, former Lakers player and executive Jerry West, guard Elgin Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar and many of O'Neal's former teammates.
"Definitely couldn't have done it without him," O'Neal said, speaking of Bryant. "We will always go down in history as the most enigmatic, controversial, dominant one-two punch ever created."
The two were teammates on the Lakers from 1996 to 2004 and won titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. They also reached the NBA Finals together in 2004, when they lost to the Detroit Pistons. After they clashed plenty along the way, O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, where he won a title in 2006.
Of the seven speakers on stage, Bryant was one of the last to address the crowd -- just before O'Neal's children and then O'Neal. The legendary Lakers guard, who retired last April after 20 seasons with the team, called O'Neal "the most dominant player I've ever seen" and recalled that while the jovial O'Neal liked to joke around, he also had a competitive side that emerged whenever he stepped onto the court.
Bryant cited a 2001 playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, and before the first game, O'Neal turned to Bryant and asked that he give him the ball early in the game. Bryant asked why.
"When I was a kid, [Spurs center] David Robinson wasn't very nice to me," O'Neal responded.
Bryant said he knew then that the Lakers would sweep the Spurs -- and they did.
Bryant thanked O'Neal, telling him that he learned so much from him as a player, and then he thanked him for everything he'd done for the Lakers and the city of Los Angeles. Bryant then turned to O'Neal's children, who were seated in the front row of a star-studded crowd.
"Your dad was a baaaaad man," Bryant told them. "A bad man."
O'Neal thanked many involved with the Lakers but didn't mention Bryant until toward the end, just before O'Neal thanked the fans.
"We pushed each other," O'Neal said. "We had our battles, had our times, but we always had respect for each other and won three championships."
O'Neal then told the fans that he heard them whenever he missed a free throw or didn't play with effort, and he said he appreciated them always staying on him.
"I had to do it," O'Neal said at the end. "You know it's coming."
And then he bellowed into the microphone:
"Can you dig it?! Can you dig it?"
SHAQ SCULPTURE DESIGNER: WHY THE DIESEL IS 10 TIMES STRONGER THAN MICHAEL JORDAN
When wondering how I might die one day, the image typically involves my body being swallowed up by a mountain of empty pizza boxes or fast-food wrappers. Now, I'm forced to consider the notion of a 1,500-pound Shaquille O'Neal falling on my head.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers and AEG will officially christen a statue commemorating the legacy of the Hall of Fame center in a ceremony in front of the Staples Center. The bronze recreation of O'Neal, designed by Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, joins statues of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Oscar de la Hoya and Lakers announcer Chick Hearn in the arena courtyard across from the L.A. Live entertainment complex.
What sets the Shaq statue apart from the rest is its placement. Technically, it's not even in said courtyard. It's high above it, affixed to a ceiling and next to a window, with the Big Aristotle hanging post-dunk and wearing a grimace that Twitter has likened to the face of WWE Hall of Famer "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
So you can understand my trepidation about walking underneath a massive bronze Shaquille O'Neal in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.
Omri Amrany came up with the idea for suspending a statue above arenagoers 25 years ago, and Shaq ended up being the perfect person to make his vision come to life.
"When I talked to the Lakers management, the discussion was ... people want to touch Shaquille," Amrany told Bleacher Report over the phone from his home in Illinois. "I said, 'Yes, people want to touch Shaquille—but wouldn't it be stronger to have the quest to touch instead of (actually) touching?'"
Amrany also designed all the other statues at Staples, plus the Wilt Chamberlain piece in Philadelphia, and, most famously, the iconic Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. His aim in all of these projects was to capture the essence of the player and to preserve it for all time.
"Kareem is known for the hook shot, Jerry [West] is known for the moves and Magic was known for the coordination and capability. Michael Jordan was known for the spread eagle," he said. "When we did Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia, we emphasized the dunking. Everybody had their niche. Shaquille is very well known for the slam and hanging by the rim. How do you do it without touching the ground? That was the question from the beginning."
The bronze Shaq is nine feet tall, and according to Amrany, 1,500 pounds, though the official Lakers press release lists it as 1,200. But what's 300 pounds? To me, that says that if the bronze Diesel fell on me, I might die a little slower.
It will sit 10 feet off the ground, which means unless you are as tall as Shaq, or at least have something resembling an NBA vertical leap, you'll never be able to touch it. This is a drastic departure from the Chick Hearn piece—a recreation of the play-by-play man at the announcer's table calling a game. There's even a second seat for you to sit down and pose for photos.
"Julie and I worked to create Chick Hearn, knowing that the Lakers would have to routinely maintain the table and the chair. It's like the nose of Lincoln or some pieces of bronze of a sculpture in Europe, because people always touch it for luck. So here, the chair and the table and part of the shoulders are always abused by people—and I would say 'abused' in a positive way—who want to take photographs."
For Amrany, Shaq had to be different. He had to be unattainable.
"I feel [with the Shaq statue] that instead of the touching and hugging, it's the desire," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if people spent their time jumping, trying to touch it, which is OK, you know? It's part of how people use contemporary art today—the interaction with the public."
But, quite frankly, I'm more concerned with it interacting with my head. I have to ask him, is it safe?
"We worked with three different engineers to engineer this piece that will be safe and sound and strong. Second, we're working with a group of very good California welders from Burbank, who are working with AEG behind the scenes to make sure everything is strong."
I'm not aware of Burbank welders having an international reputation for craftsmanship, but I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.
"I requested a payload of 10,000 pounds strength. That's 10 times more than other pieces," he continued.
That's better. Nothing calms me down like math.
The Shaq statue is Amrany's most ambitious, most nerve-racking piece yet, but he's hard at work on his next project—a 50-foot tall likeness of Johnny Cash to be erected in Folsom, California.
"We did Napoleon Dynamite for 20th Century Fox [in 2014]," he said. "We're working with cities like Folsom. We're working with memorial organizations, tributes for different cases, and, of course, with the sport."
Part of why Amrany is so in demand is the vaunted place statues hold in the cultural psyche. Sure, the dangling Shaq statue is terrifying to me, but for most fans, these works of art inspire awe and respect. It's, as Amrany suggested, an opportunity for average people to reach out and interact with something they deem greater than themselves. Sure, it's also a bit of idol worship, but that's just part of the human condition. We crave heroes, figures of esteem responsible for feats beyond our wildest dreams.
Some people might disagree, but the sports statue is an intrinsic part of a franchise's identity and means something to the average fan who throws down hundreds of dollars to be a part of the action. When the real people are gone, like Chick Hearn, these statues give us the chance to remember what we loved about them.
In a way, my own nervous feelings about Shaq squashing me are how I will choose to remember his playing days. He was a fearsome, unstoppable scoring machine whose size and speed were unmatched. Amrany's job is to sort out how to make a statue as memorable as the subject it's based on.
"I think that what makes something memorable is if in 200 years," he said, "people look back and say it was the right thing to do for its time."
If you're reading this 200 years in the future, shoot us a tweet and let us know.
Lakers honor Shaq with high-flying statue outside arena
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Lakers honored Shaquille O'Neal with a bronze statue of the Hall of Fame center who helped them to three consecutive NBA titles in better days outside Staples Center on Friday.
With his youngest son pulling a gold braided cord to drop a shiny gold curtain, O'Neal laid eyes upon something bigger than the big man himself. The statue of him completing a monster dunk with his legs in the air is 9 feet and weighs 1,200 pounds. It is suspended 10 feet in the air, attached to the arena's side. O'Neal is 7-foot-1 and was 325 in his playing days.
"This was very unexpected," said O'Neal, dressed in a cornflower blue and yellow plaid suit.
Purple and gold confetti and streamers rained down on O'Neal, his family and some of the biggest names in NBA history, including Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant, all of whom spoke at the hour-long ceremony.
Fittingly, O'Neal's statue is near one of West, one of eight outside the arena.
"This is a unique man. I loved him like a son," said West, who arrived late after being caught in traffic.
O'Neal thanked his teammates, including a bearded Bryant, who as a teenager famously feuded with O'Neal during their run to three titles from 2000-02.
"Brother, thank you," O'Neal said, turning toward Bryant. "We had our battles, we had our times but we always had respect for each other."
Earlier, Bryant spoke as fans held back by barricades chanted his name.
"Most dominant player I've ever seen," he said, mimicking O'Neal's deep voice. "I learned so much from you as a player."
Glancing at O'Neal's six children seated in the front row, Bryant said, "Kids, you should know your dad was a bad man."
Tahirah O'Neal, who at 20 is the oldest, said the best years of the kids' lives were watching their father play for the Lakers.
"We admire everything about you," she said. "You're hilarious. Despite you thinking the earth is flat — it's not flat — you're one of the smartest people I know."
Last week on his podcast, O'Neal agreed with Cleveland's Kyrie Irving that the earth is flat.
O'Neal expressed regret that late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his stepfather Philip Harrison weren't there.
At times, the big man wiped his eyes as he gazed out on his mother Lucille O'Neal, former LSU coach Dale Brown, and a slew of former teammates including Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, current Lakers coach Luke Walton, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Alonzo Mourning, Ron Harper, Mark Madsen and A.C. Green.
Others in the crowd were Elgin Baylor, Gary Payton, Jamaal Wilkes, Horace Grant, Mitch Richmond and James Worthy.
Phil Jackson, who presided over the delicate O'Neal-Bryant relationship during the Lakers' three-peat, recalled meeting O'Neal for the first time at his Montana lake home in the summer of 1999.
Jackson arrived to see O'Neal doing gainers off the pier and zipping in circles on a jet ski in the lake.
"My goal with Shaq was to have him close down the extracurricular activities. That was the hard part," said Jackson, who shared the stage with former fiancée and Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss.
Looking across the street at swarms of fans, O'Neal singled them out.
"I heard you at games when I was missing free throws," he said. "Thank you for staying on me."
Then he paused, gathered himself and warned them what was coming.
"Can you dig it?" he bellowed, unleashing one of his famous expressions.