NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal first two seasons in Tinsletown, the veteran Utah Jazz team kept shattering the Lakers’ dreams. Shaq failed to meet expectations, as the Larry O’Brien trophy kept falling out of reach. In the 1997 NBA playoffs, the squad from Salt Lake City sent the Lakers packing after a 4-1 loss in the Western Conference semifinals. The following year was even worse as Karl Malone and John Stockton swept the Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference finals.
Shaquille O’ Neal slapped Greg Ostertag
Naturally, there was some hostility between the teams, especially between Shaq and Utah’s 7-foot-2 center Greg Ostertag, as documented in O’Neal’s book Shaq Uncut: My Story.
“When the’ 97–’98 schedule came out and I saw we played Utah in the season opener, I put a circle around my calendar. I had some unfinished business with Ostertag. I didn’t like how he spouted off after they beat us in the playoffs, and I planned to take it up with him.”
Just like he had intended as he first glanced at the season schedule, Shaq went straight for Ostertag during the Lakers’ first matchup with the Jazz in 1997.
“I saw him at the shootaround and I went over and confronted him. I told him, “You should stop talking and stick to playing. Watch what you say.” He said, “F*** you, man. You watch what you say.” So I said, “Oh, you bad now?” We got into it and he was mouthing off again, so I turned and slapped him upside the head. I know. Stupid.”
One might imagine the slap propelled the two giants into a fistfight or wrestling clinch. However, what happened next was completely unexpected; Shaq recalled:
“Ostertag hit the deck like I had slugged him or something. I got him with an open hand. He was curled up on the ground moaning, ‘My contact lenses.'”
Shaq was stunned at first, didn’t know how to react, and couldn’t help but feel a slightly cringing sentiment; after all, he expected a much more aggressive reaction from Ostertag. Shaq would later regret the entire event taking place as he got fined by the league and, even worse — in serious trouble with Jerry West, the Lakers general manager at the time:
“It was embarrassing. I was embarrassed for him. I wasn’t playing in the game that night because I was recovering from a torn abdominal muscle, but I knew right away I had just gotten myself into some trouble. The league suspended me one game and fined me ten thousand dollars.”
Shaq recalled that the one-game suspension was nothing compared to what Jerry West did:
“He (Jerry West) got right up under my chin and blasted me. ‘I won’t tolerate that kind of childish behavior. Ever. Do you hear me?’ he said. ‘You embarrassed yourself, your team, your parents, and this organization. How do you want people to perceive you? As a bully who does stupid things, or a champion who is a serious ballplayer? You better decide. Now you will apologize to Greg Ostertag and the Utah Jazz, and you will apologize to the Los Angeles Lakers. And if you do something like this again, I’ll trade you.'”