Today in July 18, 1996

On July 18, 1996, the Lakers signed Shaquille O’Neal to a massive seven-year contract. O’Neal, the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA Draft, became a larger-than-life superstar during his first four seasons with the Orlando Magic and led them to their first NBA Finals appearance in 1994-95. A week prior to the signing of Shaquille O’Neal, then Lakers executive Jerry West traded Vlade Divac for 17-year-old Kobe Bryant. Bryant, who entered the NBA draft straight out of high school, was selected No. 13 overall by the Charlotte Hornets weeks before he was then dealt to the Lakers. West envisioned that O’Neal and Bryant would grow and forge a dynamic championship-winning team. 

1996-97 marked the 50th anniversary of the NBA, and O’Neal was the youngest active player named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team. The Lakers were a very exciting team from 1996-97 – 1998-99, but in each of those years, they came up short in the playoffs. In the offseason of 1999, the Lakers hired Phil Jackson, who had guided the Michael-Jordan-led Chicago Bulls to six championships over the previous decade, to coach the O’Neal-and-Bryant-led Lakers. In the process of leading the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 1999-00 – 2001-02, O’Neal and Bryant indeed proved to be one of the most dynamic superstar one-two-punches of all time. 

In 1999-00, O’Neal had one of the most dominant NBA seasons of all time. He led the league in scoring during the regular season and the playoffs, captured the league MVP award, was co-MVP of the All-Star game, and captured the Finals MVP. O’Neal is one of only two players in history to have accomplished all of those feats in a single season. The Lakers notably went 15-1 during their 2001 playoff run and O’Neal captured his second consecutive Finals MVP in the process. The Lakers’ 2002 title victory cemented O’Neal as one of only two players in history to have won three consecutive Finals MVPs. O’Neal, one of the most unstoppable forces the game has ever seen, dominated more than ever in those three consecutive Finals series. In the 2000 Finals series, O’Neal averaged 38 points per game, 16.7 rebounds per game, and 2.7 blocks per game; in the 2001 Finals series, he averaged 33 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, and 3.4 blocks per game; and in the 2002 Finals series, he averaged 36.3 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game, and 2.8 blocks per game. 

Following the Lakers’ disappointing 2004 Finals loss, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat. He and Dwyane Wade would lead the franchise to their first NBA title in 2005-06. O’Neal, towards the very end of his career, played for a few more teams following his tenure in Miami – the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Boston Celtics. Bryant wound up playing his entire storybook career with the Lakers and led them to another two championships in 2008-09 and 2009-10. A stirring turn-back-the-clock moment occurred in the 2009 All-Star Game, which turned out to be O’Neal’s 15th and final All-Star appearance. O’Neal, then playing for Phoenix, was reunited with Bryant and Jackson, the coach of the West All-Star squad. Bryant and O’Neal were co-MVPs of the All-Star game, sharing many laughs and reliving many memories in the process. 

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