Away from the basketball court, Shaquille O’Neal was usually at the center of locker room mischief. The Hall of Fame center orchestrated countless pranks, particularly toward rookies, in his 19-year career.
O’Neal never let a rookie get away easily as long as he was around. However, during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaq spared one particular player from any serious hazing.
Shaquille O’Neal and other Lakers were ready to torture Luke Walton
In 2003, there were few players entering the NBA with more of a target on their back than Luke Walton. But it had nothing to do with anything the rookie from Arizona did or said.
Luke’s dad, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, has never been shy about voicing his opinions on, well, anything. Upon retiring, Bill became a successful basketball commentator covering both college and NBA. But the former superstar would often share his criticisms of players openly, including toward Luke’s new teammates on the Lakers. And those players took an exception to the things Bill was saying.
“Back then, rookies had to go to training camp earlier,” Walton later recalled. “I was really excited to meet Kobe and the other vets, and that quickly changed. From Kobe [Bryant] to Karl Malone to Shaq, they sat me down at a table and told me life was going to be hell for me.”
Walton managed to escape Shaq’s rookie hazing
Shaq, as well as the other Laker veterans, were looking forward to making Walton’s life miserable. But in an unforeseen turn, O’Neal took it easy on Walton, as he grew to become fond of the wide-eyed rookie.
“Luke was definitely a great, unselfish player,” O’Neal once said. “We always talked about the game. We always talked about his crazy father and all that stuff. One thing I always liked about Luke was that he always looked for me in the game. He would penetrate and he [had] the ability to score and was a pretty good player, but he would always give me little, easy drop-off passes, and I tried to return the favor for him.”
As far as hazing goes? Luke somehow managed to avoid the worst of it (h/t: ESPN).
“He is probably the only rookie that I never hazed, because I hazed everybody. … He was just a nice kid. A good-looking kid. Curly hair. He was just too sweet. I didn’t want to crush him.”Shaquille O’Neal
Walton confirmed things weren’t so bad for him during his rookie season, even if the beginning was a little rough.
“They were easy on me after we got to know each other,” Walton said. “We were good to go. The first couple of weeks was a little tough. I found out as long as I did what they asked me to do, we got along just great.”
Walton became a longtime Laker
O’Neal has spoken highly of Walton over the years. But the two only spent one year together before the big man was shipped to the Miami Heat in 2004.
As for Walton, the 6-foot-8 forward spent a little over eight seasons with the Purple and Gold, winning championships in 2009 and 2010. He would then come back to the franchise and serve as its head coach from 2016 to 2019. Now entering his fourth season as Sacramento Kings head coach, Walton believes playing with a star like Shaq actually helped him prepare for coaching a star like LeBron James.
“I think when you’re dealing with players like that, everyone in our league gets coached differently,” Walton said. “Having experience with [Shaq and Kobe], I feel confident and comfortable in the role and relationship the two of us will have together.”
When it comes to Shaq’s history of rookie hazing, Walton might be the luckiest player in the NBA.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.