Shaquille O’Neal spent the first part of the century smashing Sacramento’s dreams of an NBA championship. Now he wants to spend the next part doing anything he can to build the Kings into a winner.
Declaring the new name of the city "Shaqramento," O’Neal began by taking steps in his size 22 shoes Tuesday to make amends to Kings fans for his past verbal swipes. The new minority owner of the Kings said he just wanted to rile up people and market the game when he called the franchise the "Sacramento Queens" while winning three titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I apologize," O’Neal said. "If you see me around town, come give me a hug, give me a kiss. I’ll do whatever you want."
The 15-time All-Star center promised to use the same brand that bullied Sacramento for years to bring positive attention to California’s capital city.
O’Neal’s larger-than-life personality did just that on his first day on the job. He attracted a crowd of about 75 reporters, with TV trucks fighting for the closest parking space outside Sacramento’s suburban practice facility and about a dozen fans trying to sneak into the parking lot.
O’Neal said has no intention of being a silent investor. He wants to be a mentor to volatile center DeMarcus Cousins, give his input on basketball decisions and help the team build the NBA’s first "indoor-outdoor arena."
O’Neal said he learned decades ago from Hall of Famer and friend Magic Johnson that endorsements "are good, but you want to own stuff." He declined to reveal his stake in the team but said joining an NBA ownership group "was always one of my dreams and aspirations," especially after retiring in 2011 after a 19-year playing career.
New Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive said he first approached O’Neal about joining his group after he swayed the league to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle and bought the team from the Maloof family in May.
Ranadive’s primary partner, 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov, is friends with O’Neal. The two partnered in the past to build about 20 gyms, especially in South Florida during O’Neal’s time with the Miami Heat. O’Neal said he moved from Los Angeles and couldn’t find a place to work out at all hours and found Mastrov by searching his name on Google.
"Make no mistake: Shaq is a shrewd businessman," Mastrov said.
Ranadive said the deal came together a few weeks ago while "shooting hoops" at his Silicon Valley home with O’Neal and Mastrov.
"He’s one of the most recognizable people on the planet," Ranadive said, "and we are trying to build the Kings into an even bigger global brand."
Ranadive revealed another one of those plans Tuesday. He said the team’s season opener Oct. 30 against Denver will likely be broadcast in his native India.
O’Neal is the latest high-profile former player to join the Kings this summer after the franchise nearly moved to Seattle. Hall of Famer Chris Mullin was hired as a consultant to Ranadive and Mitch Richmond is part of the ownership group.
But no member is a bigger surprise than O’Neal.
During the height of his career with the Lakers, O’Neal fueled the rivalry with the Kings with his play on the court and his personality off of it. He handed Sacramento its biggest blow by rallying the Lakers from a 3-2 deficit to win the 2002 Western Conference finals — which is still a sore spot for Kings fans — and never missed a chance to poke fun at the franchise.
"I wanted you to be very upset when you came to Arco Arena," O’Neal said, speaking to fans through reporters. "In my mind, if you could survive something like this, then you could win anywhere. You guys had us nervous all the way up until that Game 7."
Besides the opportunity to partner with friends, O’Neal said he wanted to work with one of the NBA’s best young centers — and also one of its most troubled.
O’Neal said he’s already initiated conversations with Cousins, who has been suspended several times by the NBA and the Kings for his behavior. He said he wants to help Cousins the way Phil Jackson helped O’Neal co-exist with others when he came to coach the Lakers.
"When I look at a young DeMarcus Cousins, I see a young Shaquille O’Neal. Very talented, very stubborn in his ways. Wants to do things his way," O’Neal said.
Cousins, who is entering his fourth year in the NBA, is eligible for a contract extension before Oct. 31 or he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said contract negotiations are progressing but offered no further details.
O’Neal declined to discuss what he thinks Cousins will do but said the center has been receptive to his help.
"The conversations," he said, "have already started."