Jerry Buss is going to break up the Lakers, or the state of Colorado is going to break 'em up. Either way, say your goodbyes.
Because the doors to the Laker house have been flung open, and the big boys are leaving.
Phil Jackson is already gone and, the truth is, Shaquille O'Neal wants to join him.
It looks like Buss, the Lakers' owner, has made his choice: Kobe stays; the others can go. In other words, he is not averse to trading Shaq and is willing to build his franchise around a narcissist who's on trial for rape, doesn't make his teammates better and is in denial over all of it.
Buss apparently will stop at nothing to keep Kobe off the open market, and I've been told that means he will offer Bryant partial ownership down the road. In the short term, he'll at least offer Kobe a quasi-general manager job, meaning Kobe can help pick the new coach and, ostensibly, Shaq's replacement.
Shaq knew this was coming, has known it for months, because he's refused to take the pay cut Buss wants him to take -- the same sort of pay cut Kevin Garnett bent over backwards and took in Minnesota. Shaq says the Lakers organization asked him to recruit Karl Malone last summer, asked him to recruit Gary Payton, and that it was understood they'd take care of him down the road. But they're not taking care of him, and I'm not surprised that he's just demanded a trade. He told me in late April he was resigned to the fact that it was time to go. And although some of the material wasn't pertinent to our piece about Kobe in ESPN The Magazine, it turns out Shaq must have had a premonition about the team's future.
"Well, I've seen it before," he said as we sat alone in the team's El Segundo training complex. "I've seen it before. It happens with the Ewings and the Dominiques. But give me enough respect and enough courtesy, and let me know. And I'll make it easier for everybody.
"But just don't tell me one thing and do another. Because you insult my intelligence like that. Just tell me. I ain't tripping. But the good thing about this country we live in, somebody will want this. Someone will want the Diesel. I've got about five, six good years left in me. Because the stuff that I'm doing, I still got a whole lot of stuff in me. I'm not even allowed to really take over the game how I want to. So I'm just out there playing on fumes right now."
O'Neal has a lot of beefs with the franchise. They are, in no particular order:
Buss hasn't made his contract extension a priority.
"People act like they care, but they don't really care about you," he said in our interview. "Because if they cared about you like they said they did, then stuff would be in place. And that's the only problem I have with business. ... If you don't want me here, just let me know. I'll do my time, and we can make up a story together, and it can be easy. But don't say, 'Hey, if you do this [recruit Malone], and you do this [recruit Payton], I'll get you whatever you need, baby.' And then when I do that and it comes time, and here you are messing around and jiggling around.
"My thing is, if you're not going to pay me that, let me go. I've been in the game 12 years; I've been lucky enough to get three extensions in one lifetime, which is unheard of. So I'm not really complaining. But let me know. And don't try to match my numbers up against somebody else's numbers [Garnett's].
"I'm not a dummy. I understand they want to go younger -- [Kobe's] only 25, 26. I'm not tripping over that. But let me know, just let me know. I don't have a problem, just let me know. Give me that respect and give me that courtesy. Let me know."
They should appreciate the fact that he didn't rip Kobe's head off this year.
Think about it. Bryant called Shaq "fat" before the season. He said that Shaq begs out of games with mysterious injuries and that if he leaves the franchise, it'll be because of the big fella.
Shaq, somehow, never retaliated. When Kobe was late for meetings all year and late for practices, Shaq never said anything. When Kobe had his own mysterious injury [the sliced finger], Shaq kept his mouth shut. When Kobe wouldn't shoot that day in Sacramento, Shaq didn't say a word.
And the reason is, he'd promised Malone and Payton back in November he'd stay off Kobe's case.
"[The rift] didn't flare up again, because I promised Karl and Gary and all my other teammates," Shaq said. "I was advised to be the bigger man. To be corporate. Because he's already going through a delicate situation [in Eagle, Colo.] and I don't want to add to it. So I said, 'Just be the bigger man.' I'm big. I'm corporate.
"See, even though I'm Shaq, I still have people over me. People over me who I respect -- and when they speak, there's no questions asked. A lot of people called me. The owner of the Staples Center called me and said, 'You did the right thing.' I always have corporate meetings, and they said, 'You did the right thing. You're good, Shaq. Appreciate that.'
"See, with me and Karl and Gary and a lot of other guys, you can say something and it doesn't matter how you say it. They don't take it the wrong way. For example, I can say, 'Come on, Devean, mother------, play hard.' I can say that to Karl. But a sensitive guy will take that very sensitively."
Kobe's style of play drives him batty.
No question, he admires Kobe's skills, but everything Shaq's stepfather said in San Antonio -- that Kobe essentially plays with blinders on -- Shaq agrees with.
"John Wooden told me when I was 18, 19 years old, the sign of a great player is not how many points you score, but how you make your other guys play with you," Shaq said. "That's a great player. A lot of these guys now think if you score points and if you do all that sh-- around the basket, you're a great player. And that's not true basketball, and that's not the type of basketball I know how to play. If you've got a guy open, hit him. I may miss a guy once or twice, but I'm not gonna miss you three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times.
"I could score 40 every night. If I shot the mother------ all the time. But you've got to keep Rick Fox involved, because you're gonna need Rick. You've got to keep D-Fish [Derek Fisher] warm. You've got to keep all these guys warm."
Phil and his beloved triangle shouldn't be the scapegoats.
Obviously, Shaq enjoyed that Phil ran the offense through him, but he also knows where the Lakers were before Jackson showed up: nowhere.
"So, to bring somebody else in would be to start all over, and I don't have time to start all over," he said in our interview. "And I don't really need to start all over, because the formula's written -- we know what we've got to do."
Shaq also thought Kobe was inappropriate when he said he didn't like Phil "as a person" this year.
"Me being a professional, that wouldn't happen with me, because I was raised under discipline," he said. "Of course, you'll have your disagreements. But if I didn't like the man like that, I wouldn't make it a national thing. Like I said, I'm loyal. Because I could never get over the hump, and Phil's the man that brought me over. Period. He's the best at what he does. Track record proves it. He has 9 [titles], going on 10."
But what Shaq says doesn't matter anymore, which is why he blew off his exit meeting Friday with general manager Mitch Kupchak. He's convinced the Lakers are already planning to trade him ... the same way Wilt was traded once, the same way Kareem was traded once.
And Orlando is the only place that makes sense. Orlando has the first overall pick to dangle, and a ton of other No. 1 picks to add to the package. Orlando has huge contracts to send back to make the deal work, like Grant Hill's and Juwan Howard's. Orlando is the place where Shaq still owns a home, and if Shaq comes, trust me, Tracy McGrady will rescind his trade request. This is the trade Shaq wants.
He's thought about life after Kobe ... thought about it a lot. He's gone over all the scenarios.
Like the scenario of him staying and Kobe going to the Clippers.
"It wouldn't be a real rivalry," he said. "It'll be a media rivalry. Won't be a real rivalry. You have to do something and be something before you can become a rival. Like, Napoleon wouldn't have had a rival with a guy that had one sheep and one cow and no army. You know? I don't care how much they say, 'Hey, this guy with one sheep and one cow and his brother that's 50 years old, he's a cold cat. And he's gonna take out Napoleon and that whole army by himself.' So Kobe on the Clippers, that wouldn't be no rivalry. It'd just be, hey, he used to play here and now he's duh duh duh. It'll just be hype. Hype for a night."
Or the scenario of Kobe going not to another team -- but to jail.
Or the scenario of them playing against each other in next year's Finals.
"If we split up and I don't win, then everybody'll say, 'Well, if Shaq had Kobe, he would've won.' And if he don't win, it'll be, 'Well, if Kobe had Shaq, he could've won.' That's what everybody will be saying next year ...
"Well, I like my chances better."