Shaq scores as Santa Claus
LOS ANGELES – Shaquille O’Neal came to town to play Santa Claus to 250 kids Friday morning, and it did not matter to a single one that the grinning basketball star was no longer a member of the home team.
After eight years as a star with the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal will play Saturday against the Lakers as a member of the Miami Heat.
But Friday, he was “Shaq-A-Claus” as he pulled up to the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Los Angeles in a truck filled with bicycles, Sony Playstations, karaoke machines, sneakers and other gifts.
For several hours, O’Neal, joined by teammate Damon Jones, handed out gifts to the crowd. O’Neal bought many of the gifts himself during an early morning visit to the Toys-R-Us store in Santa Monica Friday after arriving in town from a Thursday game in Sacramento.
“He gives back a lot to us,” said 16-year-old Dwayne Gibbons, who received a video game console from O’Neal.
“He went back to Miami, but he doesn’t forget about us. That’s why I love him.”
It didn’t matter to the crowd that O’Neal would take the court at the Staples Center today wearing another uniform. Even several police officers on hand Friday snapped shots of O’Neal with their camera phones as he handed out Miami Heat T-shirts to the children.
“I’m glad to be back here. I miss everybody,” O’Neal told reporters. “These kids are the future.”
O’Neal did not play up today’s game and downplayed talk of rivalry with former teammate Kobe Bryant.
“Hopefully I’ll get a great reception (from the crowd),” O’Neal said. “But who knows what’s going to happen.”
Wearing a black polo shirt, blue jeans and a red and white Santa’s cap, O’Neal mugged for cameras, waved and embraced children as they lined up for gifts, autographs and hugs. Some of the unwrapped boxes dwarfed their recipients.
“I like Shaq better than Kobe,” said 11-year-old Bennique Savannah, who received a karaoke machine.
“I’m not going to give up on him even though he’s on a different team. He’s still my friend.”