Sometime during the first round of the ’94 NBA Playoffs, when the Indiana Pacers were in Orlando to play the Magic, a 16-year-old kid came to Orlando’s locker room, wanting to meet Penny Hardaway. He ended up meeting Shaquille O’Neal instead. Over two decades later, during their Lakers sit down, Shaq found out that kid was Kobe Bryant.
Penny’s not a bad guy, but I don’t know what’s going on that day, he was just, ‘Whatever.‘ Kobe was standing there, and I actually remember this day, I grabbed him and said, ‘Come on, little fella, I’ll take a picture with you.’Shaquille O’Neal, The Rex Chapman Show with Josh Hopkins
That was the first time Shaq and Kobe met. Seven years later, they won their first NBA championship together. A year later, they won another one. A year later, they won their third straight, establishing themselves as one of the greatest duos in the league’s history.
And while NBA titles are what people cherish the most about the Kobe-Shaq dynasty, the latter values their moment in the Magic locker room above all because that’s where O’Neal’s larger-than-life aura originates from.
Then I said to myself, I want to be the guy that, when you see myself, I want to make you smile.Shaquille O’Neal, The Rex Chapman Show with Josh Hopkins
What he did ever since goes along with the lesson the 16-year-old Bryant unknowingly taught him. From the time he bought the guy a laptop for expressing his condolences for Kobe’s tragic passing, to donating a house to a 12-year-old shooting victim’s family, to just recently, when he paid for a fan’s engagement ring, O’Neal has been the exact person Kobe wanted Penny to be when he got into that locker room.
Even throughout day-to-day interactions with fans, whether it’s taking pictures or giving out autographs, Shaq remains humble, approachable, withholding no one from meeting him. And that in and of itself is a challenge – most celebrities have their fair share of rude moments with fans. But not Shaq. In part because of the first time he met Kobe Bryant.
A historical moment for the NBA, but more importantly, the turning point for one of its most dominant big men ever.