Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal have recently made concerted efforts to squash years of speculation regarding their seemingly contentious relationship. It’s no secret the future Hall of Famers grew tired of one another during a final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, tension that ultimately led to O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat.
Like time heals wounds, though, winning does, too, and both Bryant and O’Neal experienced plenty of it following the latter’s 2004 exit from Los Angeles. Mamba and the re-built Lakers won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, while the Big Diesel took part in a title-winning team for the fourth time in 2006 as a member of the Heat. While all that success has allowed Bryant and O’Neal to further appreciate their time spent as basketball’s most dynamic duo, it apparently hasn’t influenced the justification behind their separation.
While answering questions at his basketball camp recently, Bryant was asked to name the favorite teammates of his storied Lakers career. While he sung O’Neal’s praises, the two-time Finals MVP still indirectly alluded to strife between he and his former running mate.
Who was your favorite player, that you enjoyed playing with, in all of your basketball career?
There is two. [Shaq?] No it’s not Shaq. But I loved Shaq. Me and Shaq won the thing but I didn’t particularly like playing with him too much. [Laughs] It’s easy. It’s Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol.
That’s tepid criticism, obviously. Bryant wanted a lion’s share of ballhandling duties and shots in Los Angeles, and O’Neal’s status as basketball’s most devastating interior scorer prohibited him from getting them.
So entered Pau Gasol in 2007-08, a talented, versatile big man who was stretched thin as an alpha dog with the Memphis Grizzlies and had the unique playmaking skill to thrive as Bryant’s overqualified sidekick. Even after the Spaniard’s departure from the Lakers, he and Bryant have maintained a rare bond.
Fisher’s relationship with the purple-and-gold legend is similarly close-knit. The New York Knicks’ coach entered the league with a 17-year-old Bryant in 1996-97, and was at his side for each of the Lakers’ following five runs to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Might Bryant need another hand to wear his championship rings if he and O’Neal had managed to coexist for a it longer? It’s certainly possible. Considering the pair’s fractured on- and off-court rapport and ensuing success away from the other, however, their parting of ways seems mutually beneficial at the very least.