Low key, the Shaq/Kobe era was one of the greatest and most debate-inducing in basketball history. Their rivalry, however authentic, managed to achieve something many wondered if the NBA could pull off following Michael Jordan’s retirement in 1998 and bitter lockout later that year that spilled into 1999: reel in the casual fan. Kobe’s defiance and obsessive one-man crusade to prove his stature in a league looking for a perimeter freak of nature was the perfect antagonist for Shaq, hands down the most unstoppable force in the league at the time. It was oil mixing with water and egos clashing in its finest form. Meanwhile, the duo’s ability to capture three consecutive titles only added to this overwhelming sense of irony. Shaq and Kobe’s professional union tested the boundaries of chemistry and how important it actually was if the talent was exceedingly overwhelming. Ultimately though, most of what was revealed about their long-term deterioration stems from random sound bites and rumors.
The timeline suggests everything hit the fan during the 2003-2004 season. The Lakers were looking to win their fourth title in five seasons. Future Hall Of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined the squad with the sole purpose of winning a ring. Then, Kobe caught his infamous sexual assault case and talk of the Lakers not signing Shaq to a long term extension began to surface. In The Diesel’s forthcoming book, Shaq Uncut: My Story (with contributions from Jackie MacMullan), the big man documents the summer of ’03 as the moment when the Lakers dynasty imploded with no chance of reconciliation.
Just before the start of the ’03-’04 season the coaching staff called us in and said, “No more public sparring or you’ll get fined.” … Phil was tired of it. Karl Malone and Gary Payton were sick of it. … So what happens? Immediately after that Kobe runs right out to Jim Gray and does this interview where he lets me have it. He said I was fat and out of shape. He said I was milking my toe injury for more time off, and the injury wasn’t even that serious. (Yeah, right. It only ended my damn career.) He said I was “lobbying for a contract extension when we have two Hall of Famers playing pretty much for free.” I’m sitting there watching this interview and I’m gonna explode. Hours earlier we had just promised our coach we’d stop. It was a truce broken. I let the guys know, “I’m going to kill him.”
More of the excerpt, found over at Deadspin, sees O’Neal opening up more in depth. According to Shaq, Kobe was hurt his All-Star teammate never publicly supported him while the trial was in progress and, through all the media inspired on-the-court drama, he genuinely saw the center as his friend. Things took another turn when Brian Shaw became involved speaking on Bryant’s long time perceived anti-social nature, “Kobe, why would you think that? Shaq had all these parties and you never showed up for any of them. We invited you to dinner on the road and you didn’t come. Shaq invited you to his wedding and you weren’t there. Then you got married and didn’t invite any of us. And now you are in the middle of this problem, this sensitive situation, and now you want all of us to step up for you. We don’t even know you.”
In the grand scheme of things, Shaq’s no different from anyone attempting to drum up PR for a book. Is it all true? Probably not, but not all of it is false either. There’s also an interesting story about Kobe’s rookie hazing and how he got Jerry West involved to make it stop as well as how a young O’Neal first came in contact with Halle Berry. All interesting tidbits which take a back seat to the Kobe/Shaq love/hate affair. Awhile back, I noted a 30 For 30 revolving around Kobe’s legal drama would be both unique and controversial. A special on the 2003-2004 Lakers squad may even be more gripping given all the other surrounding factors of the season: their emotional loss at the hands of the Spurs the postseason before, the unparalleled hype of four Hall Of Famers on one team, Kobe’s fight for his freedom, the back and forth war of words, Phil Jackson’s imminent departure, the sheer importance of what the season meant to the Lakers’ future and how even with all this on the line, they still made it to the Finals.
The chances of this era ever fully opening its doors for public examination are about as likely as Kim Kardashian writing a book on finding true love. It may actually be better that way. Mystique makes legacies 100x more interesting to debate. Come November 15, however, Shaq’s side will at least be on display. All that needs to be done now is for Kobe to retire and write a book. And pending how healthy his knee truly is, that could be anywhere between now and the year 2018.