The detente started when Shaquille O’Neal introduced his long-time adversary with words of affection.
“The greatest Laker ever,” O’Neal said, “Mr. Kobe Bryant.”
The detente ended when O’Neal said goodbye to Bryant with a message that equally waxed nostalgia, gratitude and remorse amid three NBA championship runs, endless bickering and a messy divorce.
“Kobe, I just wanted to say I love you brother,” O’Neal said. “I miss you. I enjoyed the times we played together. I wish we could have gotten to seven championships. But it is what it is. We’re still the most respected and most dominant one-two punch in Lakers history.”
It also appears that Bryant and O’Neal are still one of the most talked about duos in Lakers history.
Bryant and O’Neal have not played together since the Lakers traded O’Neal in 2004 after the team’s NBA Finals loss to Detroit. Yet, plenty of intrigue remains surrounding O’Neal’s relationship with Bryant. So much that the two appeared on “The Big Podcast with Shaq” for an episode released on Monday. For nearly 30 minutes, both O’Neal and Bryant spoke with equal candor about their respect for their game and the never-ending personality tensions.
“It’s time to clear the air. We were the most enigmatic, controversial and most talked about dominant one-two punch,” O’Neal said. “I want people to know I don’t hate you. I know you don’t hate me. I called it a work beef. I was young. You were young. But as I look at it, we won three out of four [championships]. So I don’t really think a lot was done wrong. So I just wanted to clear the air and let everyone know, ‘No, I don’t hate you.’ We had a lot of disagreements. We had a lot of arguments. But I think it both fueled us.”
The arguments seemed plenty.
O’Neal griped about Bryant’s high-volume shooting. Bryant complained about O’Neal’s work ethic and conditioning. The “two alpha males,” as O’Neal put it, both seemed intent on fighting for the team’s dominant role.
O’Neal expressed regret for publicly demanding a trade, though former Lakers owner Jerry Buss proved the driving force in his departure. Bryant wished the two had not become so open about their differences to the media. Yet, neither sounded remorseful about their once contentious relationship.
“I’m not really a nostalgic person either to be honest with you. Shaq and I are much the same in the sense that we look at the jewelry that we won. You can’t argue that,” Bryant said. “What made [the arguments] special is we said them to each other’s face. “We didn’t go behind each other’s back and whisper to our teammates about this, that and the other. That can create friction and become cancerous to the team. When you get things out in front of each other and you say what you’re thinking and you have those disagreements, you agree to disagree and you move on. The integrity of the team is preserved. Then when we come out of it agreeing or whatever the case may be, then the team is all the more better for it. Now you have more momentum. That’s what really catapulted us.”
Bryant and O’Neal did not address certain events that contributed to their feud.
When Bryant was charged with an eventually dropped sexual assault in Eagle, Colo in 2003, the police report quoted him as telling authorities that O’Neal had paid off unnamed mistresses with hush money. During that year’s training camp, O’Neal downplayed his absence because of injuries and his impending trial, saying, “The full team is here. I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone] and Gary [Payton].”
During that same season, O’Neal challenged Bryant to opt out of his contract if he did not like playing second fiddle to him. Bryant then had an interview with former ESPN reporter Jim Gray, criticizing O’Neal’s leadership, work ethic and conditioning.
Yet, Bryant suggested the problems he had with O’Neal became inevitable amid the similar personality and mindset they had to score.
“How many years would Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain be playing together with Wilt in his prime and Michael wanting to come up and grow?” Bryant asked. “How long is that going to last before Michael says, ‘You know what? It’s time for me to show what I can do.’ It is what it is. That’s why he and I are one of a kind when it comes to tandem because you literally have two alpha males playing together on one team and that normally does not happen.”
O’Neal also did not mention how he alienated the late Jerry Buss. After makng a basket a preseason game in Honolulu in 2003, O’Neal shouted to Buss, “Now you gonna pay me?” referring to a contract extension.
Buss did not provide that extension. Buss traded O’Neal to Miami on July 14, 2004 and re-signed Bryant the next day to a seven-year, $136 million deal. Buss has said he preferred a younger Bryant over an aging O’Neal, sensing that Bryant’s play was just peaking while O’Neal would later become saddled with injuries.
“Dr. Buss called me and said, ‘This is what we want to do and now this is what we’re going to do. We have to trade you,'” O’Neal said. “I always have respected Dr. Buss for that. I have no problems or quarrels with his family. That’s how you do business.”
Bryant has also said in recent years that Jackson sided with O’Neal both to appease him and motivate Bryant. O’Neal once suggested Jackson partly instigated the tension with Bryant. Jackson also wrote a book titled “The Last Season,” that had described Bryant as “uncoachable.” Yet, both sides downplayed Jackson’s role, so much that O’Neal said that Jackson had used Robert Horry as team’s “whipping boy.”
Said O’Neal: “He was really fair. He only got fed up one time where he came in and said, ‘Both of you need to cut it out.’ That’s the only thing he said. It wasn’t a catering situation.”
Said Bryant: “Phil Jackson was even with how he handled it. He managed the team like a see saw.”
But O’Neal and Bryant revealed two episodes that contributed to the animosity.
In 1999, O’Neal and Bryant fought each other in practice.
“He would either beat the [crap] out of me, or I would get a couple good ones in. I was comfortable with either one,” Bryant said. ” I probably had a couple of screws loose because I nearly got into a fistfight and I actually was willing to get into a fight with this man. I went home and thought I’m either the dumbest or most courageous kid on the face of the Earth.”
Reports suggested O’Neal took offense at the time that Bryant challenged his authority. But O’Neal looks at the situation the same way Bryant does.
“That showed me this kid was not going to back down,” O’Neal said. “Kobe’s seen me punk every kid in the league. When he would stand there everyday, I would say, ‘This kid is not going to back down.’ I knew then if we were down by one and I’d kick it t out to somebody, he’s going to shoot it and he’s going to make it.”
O’Neal also admitted that he had threatened Bryant he would kill him.
“Ya, I did say that,” O’Neal said, prompting Bryant to laugh.
“Of course I remember that day,” Bryant said. “I was like, ‘Alright, well come on then.'”
The teasing still remained present to this day.
When O’Neal joked his NBA contemporaries may call Bryant “bay-boo” as his wife, Vannessa, does, Bryant responded, “I don’t care what they whisper. Bayboo will still drop 60.” O’Neal admitted to Bryant he hardly felt thrilled he climbed up ahead to third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, while O’Neal currently sits at fifth: “I am mad at you about one thing. How the hell did you pass me up in points?” Meanwhile, Bryant relished boasting he eclipsed O’Neal’s ring total after he won his fifth NBA championship in 2010. After all, O’Neal bragged after winning his fourth NBA title in 2006 with Miami and repeatedly arguing Bryant could not win without him.
“It pushed me even more,” Bryant said. “It drove me even more. When I had five, I wanted to rub it in a little bit.”
Bryant later argued that mindset contributed to their on-court dominance and becoming part of the 2001 NBA championship that went 15-1, which both considered the league’s most dominant squad ever. Though the pair disagreed at times over their offensive role, Bryant shared that the two called each other late at night during the playoffs to predetermine which player would dominate the series. Bryant also credited that O’Neal taught him how to lead.
“Shaq is a beast man,” Bryant said. “He’s smiling all the time when he’s on TV and TNT and you see the gregarious personality. But this dude will rip your heart out. That’s what I enjoyed about him most was that he was as nasty as I was on the court.”
O’Neal later marveled that Bryant shot three airballs his rookie season in the Lakers’ Game 5 defeat in Utah in 1997. O’Neal also recalled when he fouled out with 2:33 left in overtime in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers. Bryant indicated not to worry, proving prophetic that he would carry the team to a win on his own. Bryant made two later jumpers and a tip-in to give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead over Indiana.
“Whatever he said he was going to do from age 18 he was going to do it,” O’Neal said. “I knew that from Kobe.”
O’Neal asked Bryant to offer some clairvoyance on his upcoming season. But Bryant would not say if this was his last year.
“I’m training and getting ready for the season,” said Bryant, whose surgically repaired right shoulder marked his third season-ending injury in consecutive years. “I’m really excited about it because this is my 20th. I’m closer to the end. 20 years is nuts.”
Bryant sounded more forthcoming when O’Neal asked him if he considered any of NBA contemporaries to be the so-called “next Kobe Bryant.”
“Nah. I’m kind of old school,” Bryant said. “You have certain players that have that aggressiveness and that mentality. IT’s tough to tell, man. It’s a different generation. I grew up playing against Michael [Jordan[ and [Gary Payton] and all these stone-cold assassins. John Stockton and all these guys. So I had that mentality, right. You don’t really see that kind of mentality around the league nowadays. Everybody is buddy-buddy and don’t want to hurt each other’s [feelings].”
Bryant and O’Neal then bemoaned how much less physical the NBA has supposedly become.
“When we play in the Olympics, the physicality in the Olympics has been more physical than the NBA is,” Bryant said. “The NBA used to be the toughest and strongest league in the world. Now it’s not that. I also don’t know what happened to all the seven footers.”
O’Neal then interjected, “You know what happened. We killed them all off.”
Both Bryant and O’Neal offered a boisterous laugh, a light-hearted moment that juxtaposed the tension they had through all those years playing together from 1996 to 2004. Yet, both have offered public olive branches in recent years. Bryant and O’Neal shared the All-Star MVP in 2009. O’Neal publicly congratulated Bryant for eclipsing Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in 2012. Bryant recorded a video tribute for when the Lakers retired O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey in 2013.
And in 2015, Bryant appeared on Shaq’s podcast, burying the hatchet, telling old stories and sharing a few laughs. So when O’Neal offered an appreciative goodbye, Bryant answered back with something that may have sounded foreign during their feud.
Said Bryant: “Thank you my man. I appreciate that, brother.”