EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Shaquille O'Neal remembers the night Houston fans banged brooms against his team bus following the last sweep in the NBA Finals. Seven years later, O'Neal considers it one of the four lowest moments of his life.
O'Neal can bring his own broom to Game 4 and smack it all over New Jersey if the Los Angeles Lakers finish this series Wednesday night.
The Lakers have a 3-0 lead over the Nets in the best-of-seven series and a Los Angeles win on Wednesday would mark just the seventh sweep in Finals history.
O'Neal refused Tuesday to dwell on the looming opportunity of being on the winning side of a sweep.
''I don't like to use that word, because it's kind of bad luck,'' he said. ''I'm not the one to count my chickens before they hatch.''
But surely there's nothing O'Neal could want more than to reverse the worst night of his basketball career.
O'Neal was a member of the Orlando Magic when he made his first trip to the NBA Finals, which the Rockets won in a four-game sweep. Until O'Neal won his first of consecutive titles two years ago, that 1995 disaster was a defining point of his career.
O'Neal remembers it took the Magic bus two hours to get from the Houston arena to the team hotel as overzealous fans attacked the vehicle with the brooms they'd been waving throughout the game in celebration of the sweep.
''They were hitting the buses with the brooms and throwing bricks and rioting,'' he said. ''I was just sitting there crying, looking out. They were laughing at me.''
It left a permanent mark on a man who knows for certain he's only cried four times in his life -- the first time his father hit him, when both of his grandmothers died and the 1995 Finals.
''It was a hard feeling. I said to myself, 'If I ever have the opportunity to make it to the Finals again, I won't let my teammates down. I have to make my presence known. We just have to win,''' he said.
He's also told his Los Angeles teammates many times what it felt like that night in Houston, urging them to never let it happen to them.
''He said it was one of his most hurtful experiences to have to go through,'' Kobe Bryant said. ''He said it was a lot of pain to be swept in the NBA finals and be on the road and have to get on the bus and leave the arena with all the fans hitting the brooms up against the window of the bus. So, it would feel good to return a favor.''
Brian Shaw and Robert Horry don't need O'Neal's recollection of the sweep -- Shaw, then with Orlando, was on the bus with O'Neal, while Horry, then a member of the Rockets, was inside celebrating. Like O'Neal, Shaw would like to make New Jersey the latest team swept out of the Finals.
''It would help redeem that situation a little bit -- I know that it has helped motivate us to do better up to this point,'' Shaw said.
As much as the Lakers want to end the series, the Nets want desperately to avoid ending their season at home on Wednesday night.
Sure, New Jersey knows that no team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit to win the Finals. But the Nets are refusing to lay down.
''Dignity and pride, this team has been playing with that all season,'' guard Kerry Kittles said. ''Everybody in this locker room has pride in each other and themselves. We don't want to get swept.''
No one expects the Nets to come back in this series, so it would seem a single victory would do little but extend New Jersey's season a few more days. In reality, the mental impact of at least one win could last all the way into next season.
''It would help us feel a little better about ourselves,'' Nets coach Byron Scott said. ''But I don't think it's going to diminish what we've done all season long.''
To the Nets, losing four straight games would be forever remembered as a debacle.
''Getting swept means the other team had its way the entire series,'' Kittles said. ''We'd like to think we did some good things and can compete against these guys and make it a series.''
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