More than a decade after their bitter, well-documented feud dominated headlines in the NBA and led to their eventual fallout, Los Angeles Lakers legends Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal shared a candid, wide-ranging conversation, reminiscing about their past success and shining new light on their relationship.
The pair will forever be linked for their days on the Lakers, which included three consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 followed by a trip to the NBA Finals in 2004, and for how their big personalities often clashed.
In one of the more emotional parts of the chat aired on TNT before Saturday’s All-Star Weekend festivities, O’Neal apologized to Bryant for the way he treated him, and admitted that part of their feud was fabricated “just to keep it going.”
O’Neal joked that the touching moment was similar to last year when Magic Johnson apologized to Isiah Thomas for their own feud, which led to both players breaking down in tears.
The realization all began after the 2009 All-Star Game, according to O’Neal, where they shared the trophy as co-MVPs.
“You told me to take the trophy home,” O’Neal said. “I took it home and gave it to [my son] Shareef. I realized then that I may have messed something up. Because a lot of times that our beef was going on, you know me, I’m the master of marketing. About 60 percent of the time, I was just saying to keep it going.”
“I was an a—— to this guy [Bryant], so I owe you an apology,” he continued. “I’m going to give you an apology but we’re not going to be doing all that crying like Magic and Isiah. Thank you for that moment because Shareef loved that moment. …He loves you for that and I love you for that moment.”
The two also spoke about their first fight, which happened during the 1998-1999, lockout-shortened season.
As Bryant recalls, he and O’Neal were playing in a pickup game on opposite teams at Southwest College in Los Angeles when things got heated and the curse words started flying.
“You kept saying ‘Yeah, take that little b—-. Take that little b—-,’ ” Bryant said. “I’m looking around, ‘Oh, he’s talking to me.’ I said ‘Well hold on, ain’t going to be too many more of those ‘little b—–.’ And what’d you say? ‘Well what you going to do about it?’
“The next thing I knew I saw a big hand coming this way, and I remember going [the other way]….”
O’Neal started to laugh at the memory but turned serious as Bryant described how the event shaped his impression of his teammate.
“I’m looking at this and I’m saying ‘Man, he wants this thing. It affects him. It consumes him,’” Bryant said. “And then from that moment on I knew we spoke the same language.”
Despite their differences, the pair thrived on the court. Debates about the best one-two punch often include Bryant and O’Neal, and if you ask them, the answer is a no-brainer.
In fact, Bryant would love to match up the 2001 NBA title-winning Lakers against the best teams in league history.
“I would love to be able to take our ’01 team match up with the ’91 Bulls team because I know Michael [Jordan] feels that was when he was at his best,” Bryant said. “And the ’88 Lakers before Magic got hurt. Roll the ball out and we can play and see what happens. Unfortunately we can’t. So to sit here and say we were the best, we were better, what difference does that make? You ask us, and of course we’re the best. You ask Michael and Scottie [Pippen], of course they were the best. You ask Magic and [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], of course they were the best.”
O’Neal was even more unequivocal about their dominance, citing the pair’s off-court issues as part of their legend.
“What makes us the best is that no other duo had as many outside controversies as me and you had,” he said. “That’s what I always say we’re the enigmatic, no one could figure us out, most controversial. When it come down to step on the court, [we were] the most dominant one-two punch, little-big ever created in the game.”
As for how those teams in the 2000s would match up against today’s “small-ball” playing style, Bryant said O’Neal’s presence would be enough to disrupt their opponent’s flow. O’Neal nodded along.
These days, it seems like they agree on more than they don’t.
“With you down there [in the paint], the game stops,” Bryant said. “You can’t go anywhere, because the defense has come to down to get you, stops them from running out. No long rebounds. The game is always chopped up because you’re drawing fouls all the time. I just would love to see how they would deal with that.”
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