Shaq Sculpture Designer: Why the Diesel Is 10 Times Stronger Than Michael Jordan

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeMarch 24, 2017

LOS ANGELES - 2004:  Shaquille O'Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks against the Phoenix Suns during an NBA game circa 2004 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2004 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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When wondering how I might die one day, the image typically involves my body being swallowed up by a mountain of empty pizza boxes or fast-food wrappers. Now, I'm forced to consider the notion of a 1,500-pound Shaquille O'Neal falling on my head.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers and AEG will officially christen a statue commemorating the legacy of the Hall of Fame center in a ceremony in front of the Staples Center. The bronze recreation of O'Neal, designed by Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, joins statues of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Oscar de la Hoya and Lakers announcer Chick Hearn in the arena courtyard across from the L.A. Live entertainment complex.

What sets the Shaq statue apart from the rest is its placement. Technically, it's not even in said courtyard. It's high above it, affixed to a ceiling and next to a window, with the Big Aristotle hanging post-dunk and wearing a grimace that Twitter has likened to the face of WWE Hall of Famer "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

So you can understand my trepidation about walking underneath a massive bronze Shaquille O'Neal in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.


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Omri Amrany came up with the idea for suspending a statue above arenagoers 25 years ago, and Shaq ended up being the perfect person to make his vision come to life.

"When I talked to the Lakers management, the discussion was ... people want to touch Shaquille," Amrany told Bleacher Report over the phone from his home in Illinois. "I said, 'Yes, people want to touch Shaquille—but wouldn't it be stronger to have the quest to touch instead of (actually) touching?'"

Amrany also designed all the other statues at Staples, plus the Wilt Chamberlain piece in Philadelphia, and, most famously, the iconic Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. His aim in all of these projects was to capture the essence of the player and to preserve it for all time.

"Kareem is known for the hook shot, Jerry [West] is known for the moves and Magic was known for the coordination and capability. Michael Jordan was known for the spread eagle," he said. "When we did Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia, we emphasized the dunking. Everybody had their niche. Shaquille is very well known for the slam and hanging by the rim. How do you do it without touching the ground? That was the question from the beginning."

Martha Irvine/Associated Press

The bronze Shaq is nine feet tall, and according to Amrany, 1,500 pounds, though the official Lakers press release lists it as 1,200. But what's 300 pounds? To me, that says that if the bronze Diesel fell on me, I might die a little slower.

It will sit 10 feet off the ground, which means unless you are as tall as Shaq, or at least have something resembling an NBA vertical leap, you'll never be able to touch it. This is a drastic departure from the Chick Hearn piece—a recreation of the play-by-play man at the announcer's table calling a game. There's even a second seat for you to sit down and pose for photos.

"Julie and I worked to create Chick Hearn, knowing that the Lakers would have to routinely maintain the table and the chair. It's like the nose of Lincoln or some pieces of bronze of a sculpture in Europe, because people always touch it for luck. So here, the chair and the table and part of the shoulders are always abused by people—and I would say 'abused' in a positive way—who want to take photographs."

For Amrany, Shaq had to be different. He had to be unattainable.

"I feel [with the Shaq statue] that instead of the touching and hugging, it's the desire," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if people spent their time jumping, trying to touch it, which is OK, you know? It's part of how people use contemporary art today—the interaction with the public."

Richard Vogel/Associated Press

But, quite frankly, I'm more concerned with it interacting with my head. I have to ask him, is it safe?

"We worked with three different engineers to engineer this piece that will be safe and sound and strong. Second, we're working with a group of very good California welders from Burbank, who are working with AEG behind the scenes to make sure everything is strong."

I'm not aware of Burbank welders having an international reputation for craftsmanship, but I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

"I requested a payload of 10,000 pounds strength. That's 10 times more than other pieces," he continued.

That's better. Nothing calms me down like math.

The Shaq statue is Amrany's most ambitious, most nerve-racking piece yet, but he's hard at work on his next project—a 50-foot tall likeness of Johnny Cash to be erected in Folsom, California.

"We did Napoleon Dynamite for 20th Century Fox [in 2014]," he said. "We're working with cities like Folsom. We're working with memorial organizations, tributes for different cases, and, of course, with the sport."

Dan Steinberg/Associated Press

Part of why Amrany is so in demand is the vaunted place statues hold in the cultural psyche. Sure, the dangling Shaq statue is terrifying to me, but for most fans, these works of art inspire awe and respect. It's, as Amrany suggested, an opportunity for average people to reach out and interact with something they deem greater than themselves. Sure, it's also a bit of idol worship, but that's just part of the human condition. We crave heroes, figures of esteem responsible for feats beyond our wildest dreams.

Some people might disagree, but the sports statue is an intrinsic part of a franchise's identity and means something to the average fan who throws down hundreds of dollars to be a part of the action. When the real people are gone, like Chick Hearn, these statues give us the chance to remember what we loved about them.

In a way, my own nervous feelings about Shaq squashing me are how I will choose to remember his playing days. He was a fearsome, unstoppable scoring machine whose size and speed were unmatched. Amrany's job is to sort out how to make a statue as memorable as the subject it's based on.

"I think that what makes something memorable is if in 200 years," he said, "people look back and say it was the right thing to do for its time."

If you're reading this 200 years in the future, shoot us a tweet and let us know.


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