After being selected to his 15th – and possibly his final – NBA All-Star Game, Shaquille O’Neal began reflecting. It is something athletes do when they get to be a certain age and they start to see the finish line, and O’Neal is at that point now.
Oh, yeah. Shaq’s had a few of them. When the subject of being reunited, for one night at least, with former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant and former Lakers coach Phil Jackson in the All-Star Game, O’Neal told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, “It’s going to bring back great memories. We’re gonna have fun.”
Then, O’Neal peaked Stephen A.’s attention when he said “Myself and him (Kobe), we’re still the greatest Little Man, Big Man 1-2 punch ever created in the history of the game.”
That’s high praise to a tandem that was more combustible than fluid. The relationship between O’Neal and Bryant could be summed up with two words: high maintenance. Bryant was mostly the recipient of Shaq attacks and, for the most part, was able to absorb those shots and took the high road. Some of those arguments stayed in house, but a lot of them were played out through the media.
It came to a boiling point at the start of the 2003-04 season when Bryant was caught in the middle of a rape case in Colorado. Seeing his livelihood and his NBA in serious jeopardy, Bryant panicked and blurted out Shaq’s name, telling detectives that O’Neal paid women “all the time” to stay quiet. Kobe not only broke the brotherhood code but he also broke a longstanding unwritten rule among athletes that you never throw teammates under the bus.
It took a long time before O’Neal got over the fact that his “little brother” tried to bring him down. But like all arguments between family members, time heals everything that ills. The two of them may not be best of friends, but their relationship has gone from being combatants to more of a community.
“He’s probably the MVP this year. He’s a monster,” O’Neal said of Bryant.
“I’m not comparing, I’m just saying that young man (Kobe) is a beast. We all know he’s a beast. LeBron is a beast also, but (Kobe) is playing excellent ball right now. He’s got his team playing well; he’s leading by example.”
O’Neal has nothing but good thoughts about his time with the Lakers, a 360-degree turn from his past comments about the team that dealt him to Miami in 2004. As he looks back at his own career, he admitted that his time in L.A. was special.
“It was all about winning. We won three out of four. Can’t beat that. Nothing else matters. Should have been four out of four,” said O’Neal, who won three of his four championship rings as a Laker.
As for his opinion of the guy who helped him win three consecutive NBA titles in Los Angeles, O’Neal said “Always did love him. It was all marketing. And we helped you (the media) guys hype it up. I know what I’m doing. I’m the smartest player in the world.”
And Coach Jackson?
“He’s the greatest coach ever, and he’s done a lot for me,” O’Neal said. “Phil’s my guy.”
O’Neal and Bryant will forever be linked for what they accomplished with the Lakers. From 2000 to 2004, they were the most dominant duo in the league and one can only wonder how many championships the Lakers would have won had those two been able to set aside their petty differences and stayed together.
“Probably about six or seven (championships) … easily,” O’Neal said.