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It’s all a lesson in how time does heal all wounds, especially when the salve is a grand resort operated by a man who is a team player at the core.
The retirement party for Shaquille O’Neal on Saturday night at Moon nightclub at the Palms might jar the memories -- admittedly, the long-term memories -- of fans of the Sacramento Kings. There was a time, nearly a decade ago, when the concept of the Maloofs hosting a party for Shaq would have seemed about as likely as Shaq taking on a job as the leprechaun spokesman at O’Shea’s.
In the years when the Maloof-owned Kings and the Shaq-Kobe Bryant-led L.A. Lakers were locked up in a torrid rivalry for supremacy in the NBA’s Western Conference, Shaq had taken to derisively referring to the Kings as “The Queens.” Lakers fans relished the faux Kings jerseys that were marketed, for a time, with the logo “Queens” stitched across the front.
This all started during the 2002 Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers beat back the Kings in seven games in what many fans consider one of the classic series in NBA history (the series later surfaced in the infamous betting scandal involving referee Tim Donaghy). The bad blood spilled over to an exhibition game in 2002, when the two teams brawled in the tunnel leading to the court at Staples Center.
When ESPN once ran a “Top 10” Shaq quotes over the course of his remarkable NBA career, his comments about the Kings were No. 4. As he said before the 2002-2003 season, “We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Not at all. I’m not going to be doing this all year, going back and forth with them. Nobody cares that we won last year. Focus on this year. I’m not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Write it down. Take a picture. Sent it to ’em. I don’t care.”
It was said in the proverbial heat of the moment, and it’s entirely safe to say neither side is feeling that heat today.
Palms owner George Maloof, whose family is still attempting to forge an arena agreement to keep the Kings in Sacramento, chuckled when reminded of the long-ago discord. He hadn’t even thought of it in years. He stressed that Shaq is a big fan of the hotel -- and vice versa.
“I think he’s such a great athlete, and we have such great respect for his talent, what he’s meant to the league, we’ve felt that it’s an honor to be part of (his retirement),” Maloof said Thursday during an interview for an upcoming cover story in sister publication Vegas Inc. in which he talks optimistically of plans for the hotel in the wake of its recent ownership restructuring partnership with investment firms TPG Capital and Leonard Green and Partners.
“We’ve never thought it would be any animosity,” Maloof continued. “Shaq’s a great guy. He’s stayed here many times. He loves the hotel, so it’s fitting that he’s spending his retirement party here at the Palms.”
It might have seemed a preposterous notion a decade ago, but today this event is a slam dunk, and Shaq knows all about that.