Constant clashes ultimately led to a bitter breakup between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but the two stars addressed their relationship on O’Neal’s “The Big Podcast with Shaq,” which was made available Monday.
“It’s time to clear the air,” O’Neal said, “because I’ve said many times that we were the most enigmatic, controversial, most talked-about, dominant one-two punch. I just want people to know that I don’t hate you, I know you don’t hate me. I called it today a 'work beef,' is what we had.”
Said Bryant, “Here’s the thing -- what we did, our disagreements, what made those things 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, because that does nothing but create friction and it’s cancerous to the team.
“When you get things out, right in front of each other [and] you say what you’re thinking, you have those disagreements, you agree to disagree, you move on [and] all of the sudden, the integrity of the team is preserved. And then when you come out of that, agreeing or whatever the case may be, then the team is all the more better for it because now you had more momentum, and I think that’s what really catapulted us, especially that second championship.”
O’Neal and Bryant were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers from 1996 to 2004, winning titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. They reached the NBA Finals in 2004, but lost to the Detroit Pistons. The pair butted heads repeatedly along the way and eventually split, with O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004.
"I just want people to know that I don't hate you, I know you don't hate me. I called it today a 'work beef,' is what we had." Shaquille O'Neal to Kobe Bryant
O’Neal said he often tells people that if he sees Bryant in a restaurant, he won’t “throw water in his face.” But he doubts the public will believe him.
“They'll say, 'I read an article where you said you was going to kill him.' Yeah, I did say that, but I didn't mean it," O'Neal said, laughing.
Bryant recalled that instance, one of many during their most combative years from 1999 to 2004.
“Of course I remember that day,” Bryant said. “I was like, 'All right, then come on then.' Dude, if you could have seen this ... [then] you'd be like, 'OK, Shaq is going to kill this f---ing kid and this kid is crazier than bat s---.'
“But, really, his response to that and what America would think, that shows how different we are. Because he keeps telling people, 'Listen, it wasn't like that, it wasn't like that.' And my response is, 'F--- them. I don't care what they think.' That's how we felt about each other. Right? That's how we rolled with each other."
When asked if he and Bryant missed out on an opportunity to be the all-time best, O’Neal replied, “Yeah, we did.”
O’Neal also explained why he believed his partnership with Bryant fell apart.
“Again, it was two alpha males and then the business aspect kicked in, and a lot of people don’t know about that, but the business aspect kicked in and I was getting older,” O’Neal said. “Management was like, 'Hey, you're getting older, we know you want this, but we want to give you that.' And in my mind, 'I'm not getting older. I don't want that. I don't want that.' And they just wanted to move in a new direction.
“See, the good thing about Dr. [Jerry] Buss, [like] Kobe said earlier, Dr. Buss will tell it to your face. Dr. Buss called me and said, this is what we want to do and this is how we’re going to do it. If you don’t accept it, we’re going to have to trade you. I always respected Dr. Buss with that. I have no problems, no quarrels with his family because that’s how you do business.”
Bryant compared their situation to all-timers playing together.
“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. “Like, 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 said he does regret saying that he wanted to be traded after the 2004 season, “but you know that’s how you’ve got to talk when you’re in business, especially when you think you’re in control.”
“Here’s the thing though,” Bryant said, “when you say it at the time, you actually mean it and then when you get older you have more perspective and you’re like 'holy s---, I was an idiot when I was a kid.
“To me, the most important thing was really just keep your mouth shut. You don’t need to go to the press with stuff. You keep it internal and we have our arguments and our disagreements, but I think having our debates within the press was something I wish would’ve been avoided, but it did kind of create this whirlwind around us as a team, with myself and Shaq and the press and the media that just put so much pressure on us as an organization.”
The duo addressed several other topics regarding their time together, including:
• The two said they learned plenty from each other.
“Shaq taught me how to lead, because he’s amazing,” Bryant said. “You can see how he is now, right? He’s really outgoing, he’s very gregarious, he puts his arm around guys, he always checks in with guys, always makes sure that they’re good. So I learned that from him, because I naturally wasn’t like that.”
O’Neal said he learned that Bryant was fearless when he air-balled several shots during the final minutes of a series-losing game at Utah in the 1997 playoffs. Bryant was an 18-year-old rookie at the time.
“I didn’t want to take the shot, nobody wanted to take the shot,” O’Neal said. “This guy took three major shots. He shot airballs, and I knew then, 'You know what? This guy is not afraid. He’s going to be the man.' So I knew when I got in trouble, when I wasn’t playing well, I knew he was going to ... step up. He was like the only guy besides [Michael] Jordan that I’ve seen do that.”
• The two almost came to blows in 1999, Bryant recalled.
“In ’99, two things happened,” Bryant said. “I think Shaq realized that this kid is really competitive and he's a little crazy. And I realized that 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 I was like, 'Dude, I've either got to be the dumbest or the most courageous kid on the face of the Earth.'"
O’Neal said they went at each other several times.
“All the time. We did it all the time,” O’Neal said. "That just showed me, 'You know what, this kid ain't going to back down to nobody.’ Kobe seen me punk everybody in the league. So when this kid would stand up every day [to me], I'm like, 'S---, this kid ain't going to back down.' I knew then, that if I'm down by one and I kick it out to someone, he's going to shoot it and he's going to make it.
Said Bryant, “It was one of two things. Either, "He was either going to beat the s--- out of me or I was going to get it done. I was comfortable with either one."
• Both players said said Lakers coach Phil Jackson “never” played favorites between them.
"He was really fair," O'Neal said. "He only got fed up one time and he came in and said, 'Both of ya'll need to cut it out.' And that's the only thing he said."
O’Neal added, “You know what? Robert Horry was the whipping boy. Robert Horry used to always come in and say, ‘I ain’t gonna be your damn whipping boy.’”
• The two shared many late-night phone calls before big games. O’Neal said the phone calls were often short.
“I said, ‘Kobe, you ready?’” O’Neal said. “He’ll be like, ‘Hell yeah I’m ready. You ready to hit them free throws?’ I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be ready.’ Just joking, having fun. That’s all. Just checking in with each other.”
Said Bryant, “Shaq used to come up and tell me, ‘Kobe, this series, we’ll take turns. You get them this series, I’ll get them the next series, you get them the next series.’ We used to do that type of stuff. He’d be like, ‘Kobe, go kill ‘em. Go get ‘em this series.’ And I’d say, ‘Shaq, this is on you now. You’ve got it now.’ We used to literally alternate who dominates what series.”
Their most dominant team? They each chose the 2001 squad that steamrolled to a 15-1 postseason record en route to a Finals win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“The 2001 team was lights-out,” Bryant said.
• O’Neal was asked about seeing Bryant win his fifth championship in 2009; at the time, O’Neal had won four titles.
“I was pissed,” O’Neal said. “I got four first, so then I threw a little jab. He had a couple years, then they somehow got Pau Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum and then he got four and I was like, ‘OK, we’re tied. I’m cool for a while.’ Then he gets No. 5 and a reporter [asks], ‘You feel good that you’ve got one more than Shaq?’ And then Kobe is like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got one more than Shaq.’ I’m like, ‘Aw, s---! He got me.’”
But Bryant was happy when O’Neal won his fourth title with the Heat not long after the two parted ways.
"Because I knew he was going to push me to win more, because I always wanted to get to where Magic [Johnson] was, where Michael [Jordan] was,” Bryant said. “So four was something that was really on my radar. But it pushed me even more. It drove me even more. So when I got five, I was like, I couldn’t help just turning the knife a little bit."
• O’Neal asked Bryant if he saw the “next Kobe” out there.
“Man, nah, I’m kind of old-school, man,” Bryant said. “You have certain players that have that aggressiveness and that mentality. It’s tough to tell. It’s a different generation. I grew up playing against Michael and [Gary Payton] and all these stone-cold assassins. John Stockton and all these guys. So I had that mentality. 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].”
• Both players agreed that the NBA is softer today than in previous generations.
“The physicality in the Olympics, they’re actually more physical than the NBA is,” Bryant said. “It’s the silliest thing in the world. The NBA used to be the toughest, strongest league in the world, and now, it’s not that. I don’t know what happened to all the 7-footers.”
“You know what happened, baby,” O’Neal said. “We killed them all off.”
Bryant added, “It’s crazy. Think about it. If you could go back to when you played, you could name off five or six 7-footers off the top of your head. You just knew them. Try doing it now.”
• O’Neal also chided his former teammate about a recent name that Bryant’s wife gave Bryant in an Instagram post: “bay-boo.”
Bryant confirmed that “bay-boo” is indeed one of his nicknames.
“My kids [also] call me ‘The Tickle Monster,’” he added. “I’ve got all kinds of little sweet [nicknames]. I’m like, ‘Man ... I’m supposed to be the Black Mamba, man!’”
And what if an NBA player whispers that phrase into his ear next season?
“I tell you what -- I do not care what they whisper: ‘bay-boo’ will still drop 60,” Bryant said with a laugh.
• As the podcast neared its end, O’Neal had one last message for Bryant.
“Kobe, I just want to say, I love you, brother,” O’Neal said. “And I miss you. I enjoyed the times we played together. I wish we could’ve got to seven championships, but it is what it is. We’re still the most respected, the most dominant one-two punch in Laker history.”
Bryant replied, “Thank you, my man. I appreciate that, my brother.”