Talking smack to a man with Shaquille O’Neal‘s stature hardly seems like a wise choice to make. It’s even more questionable for a young center in his second season in the NBA. Still, Greg Ostertag tried The Diesel.
Ostertag and the Jazz had Shaq and the Los Angeles Lakers‘ number in the late-90s. However, the Dallas native’s efforts at bantering with O’Neal came at an emasculating cost.
Greg Ostertag chided Shaquille O’Neal during the 1997 Western Conference semifinals
Greg Ostertag was still pretty green when he and the Utah Jazz met Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals.
The Jazz selected Ostertag with the 28th overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. He played 57 games in his rookie season and emerged as the man in the middle in his sophomore campaign, starting in 70 of his 77 appearances during the 1996-97 season. However, despite the added starting experience, Ostertag was about to face an entirely different challenge in Shaq.
O’Neal was in his first season with the Lakers in 1996-97. He averaged 26.2 points, 12.5 points, 3.1 assists, and 2.9 blocks in his debut with the Purple and Gold, though injuries limited him to just 51 games.
A healthy Shaq dominated the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, averaging 33.0 points and helping LA to a four-game series victory. He didn’t have quite as much success against the Jazz. Ostertag and Co. held him to just 22.0 points on under 50% shooting from the field. O’Neal completely took Ostertag out of the proceedings, but the Utah center did enough to keep his numbers down.
Ostertag felt good about himself, too. He had words for O’Neal throughout the series as the Jazz rolled to a four-game series win and eventually reached the NBA Finals. The trash-talk was emphatically highlighted by Ostertag’s nine blocks in Game 5.
Superman didn’t forget Ostergag’s barbs. He actively sought him out the following preseason.
Shaq slapped Ostertag before a 1997 preseason game
Karl Malone vividly remembers The Diesel’s deliberate act of aggression against Tag.
The former Jazz forward told the story of the time Shaquille O’Neal slapped Ostertag while speaking during a “90s Reunion” Zoom with Ahmad Rashad in 2020. Malone said (h/t Rob Perez on Twitter) that Shaq told Malone and others he didn’t appreciate Ostertag’s bad-mouthing and would confront him during shootaround.
According to Malone, O’Neal approached Ostertag and, after a brief exchange, slapped him so hard that Tag’s contacts fell out of his eyes and onto the floor. The incident made headlines in the paper. It also “f***ed up Greg Ostertag for the rest of his life,” per Malone. Former Jazz point guard John Stockton confirmed the story.
The NBA banned both teams from sharing the floor for shootarounds shortly after that. Ostertag, meanwhile, rarely spoke to the media whenever Shaq and the Lakers came to town, particularly later that year when the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals.
Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers eventually overtook Ostertag and the Jazz as the top power in the West
Utah again got the best of Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers in 1998, sweeping LA in the Western Conference Finals. But it would not be long until the Purple and Gold ruled the West.
The Lakers would win the West four out of five years between 2000 and 2004, including a historic three-peat at the start of the millennium. O’Neal highlighted that run, winning a league MVP and three Finals MVPs.
Ostertag, meanwhile, played 11 seasons in the NBA. But he wasn’t quite the Shaq foil he initially appeared to be, perhaps because O’Neal laid a giant bear paw right on his cheek.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.