Shaquille O'Neal Says LeBron James and Lakers Winning NBA Title Would 'Honor' Kobe Bryant

"That would be a great story, especially with the passing of our friend, to just honor him and win," Shaquille O'Neal tells PEOPLE

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty

As a studio analyst on Inside the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal can't reveal the team he'd most like to win this year's NBA championship — but he does have an idea which one would make for a "great story."

After a wild start to the playoffs, only four teams are left competing for a spot in the NBA Finals to begin later this month in Orlando. With the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers still battling to win their respective conferences, O'Neal says he's hoping for an NBA Finals between the two teams he led to NBA titles.

"I'd like a Laker-Miami Heat matchup," 48-year-old O'Neal, who retired from the NBA in 2011, tells PEOPLE. "Even though I'm an analyst, I'm always a fan. I'm not allowed to say I want this guy to win, but I just want to see some great basketball. I actually hope it goes to seven games."

O'Neal famously won three consecutive NBA titles on the Lakers while playing alongside Kobe Bryant from 2000 to 2002, then claimed his fourth championship in 2006 during his second season with the Miami Heat.

O'Neal's jersey numbers — No. 32 with Miami and No. 34 with Los Angeles — are now retired by both franchises.

That's why O'Neal won't be choosing a side — at least publicly — if a Lakers and Heat matchup becomes a reality.

"At the end of the day, it's all about the entity of basketball," he says. "It's not about me and who I want to win. If I'm enjoying the game, then I'm sure 40 million other people will enjoy the game — and we need this right now."

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. AFP via Getty Images

But O'Neal is aware of how much an NBA title would mean to the city of Los Angeles, especially this year.

The Lakers, who are facing the Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Friday night, are still coping with Bryant's death from a helicopter crash in January. The accident also claimed the lives of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

The Lakers have honored Bryant by displaying special patches on their jerseys and wearing their "Black Mamba" uniforms at least once during their playoff series. So far, they've had tremendous success, having lost only twice in 10 games thanks to performances from costars Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

If the team can win the title, the significance of the moment — which would also place them in a tie with the Celtics for the most NBA championships in league history at 17 — is not lost on O'Neal.

"That would be a great story," he says of the Lakers potentially winning a title after the loss of Bryant. "Especially with the passing of our friend, to honor him and win."

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A championship is far from secured for the Lakers. They still have to get through Denver, a team that became the first in NBA history to come back from two 3-1 deficits in a single season, and then either face Miami or Boston in the Finals.

But if they do, it would be the first time they'll hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy since 2010, when Bryant and the Lakers beat the Celtics in a thrilling seven-game series.

If that happens, O'Neal says James — who left the Cleveland Cavaliers for Los Angeles in 2018 — will cement himself as a Laker legend.

"We have our own atmosphere in L.A. When I came to L.A., I was Shaq, but I wasn't in the same atmosphere as Magic and Kareem, and those guys," O'Neal explains. "But, by the time I left L.A., I was in their atmosphere."

"[Fans told] LeBron, you're great, but if you want to be a Laker great, get us one of these," he says, referencing the NBA title. "Guess what? He's on his way to doing it. ... All you need is one."

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