WINDERMERE, Fla. -- Shaquille O'Neal never truly answered the question. It still was the most informative response of the day, on what figures to be his last big round of interviews for a while now that he's heading to retirement.
I asked him Friday who was the greatest player he ever played with. His late-career stops in Miami, Cleveland and Boston brought Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett into play, but he didn't start comparing their skills. He didn't talk about them -- or basketball -- at all. Instead he veered into a discussion of what he termed business policy and how it applied to Kobe Bryant.
The implication was that Kobe was the best. After all, he was the only one whose name Shaq mentioned. But the thing that didn't need any inference or deduction was that the careers of Shaq and Kobe will always be inseparable, both in our minds and theirs.
Large framed pictures that capture Shaq at various points in his high school, college and pro careers hang on the gymnasium wall at his home, and yes, they include shots of Shaq with Kobe, celebrating victories and kissing trophies together.
And yet their rivalry will last even after the pictures fade.
After winning the championship last year, Kobe didn't even wait for the champagne to soak in before he proclaimed the significance of his fifth ring: "one more than Shaq." It was fair game after Shaq rejoiced in Kobe's humbling Finals loss to the Celtics in 2008 by asking a crowd to sing along while he rapped a request for Kobe to provide a backside flavor report.
It's easy to see how the two could differ. Kobe was single-mindedly driven to be the best, his talent supplemented by his focus and willpower, unable to comprehend how anyone else could not operate the same way. He had a shoot-first mentality that even he has come to admit might not be endearing to the rest of the basketball world. O'Neal thought guards should be trained to get the ball to their big men close to the basket. And he considered the 94-foot hunk of hardwood as much a stage as a basketball court and thought of the sport as merely a part of his wide-ranging life.
What we still struggle to comprehend is how those differences could overwhelm what was right about their partnership, namely that they were an unstoppable combination at their peak. And we still wonder what might have been if they could have only managed to put aside their differences.
"As I got into business mode early in my career, I learned to push buttons," O'Neal said. "So a lot of people on the outside looking in would say, 'Him and Kobe had problems.' No. As a CEO, you have to differentiate relationship-driven and task-driven ... and I was task-driven. And the task was to win championships.
"I pushed Kobe's buttons, Kobe pushed my buttons and we were able to win three out of four [trips to the NBA Finals]. And I did the same thing with D-Wade.
"A lot of people really didn't understand my tactics: business. The result was winning four championship rings. A lot of people think we hate each other, but I see Kobe and his beautiful wife and his beautiful children all the time, and I go up to them and say, 'I'm Uncle Shaq,' they say hi, kiss me on the cheek, and we move on. It's all tactics."
But those tactics led to the breakup of the best tandem going in the NBA. Would a relationship expert take pride in advice that led to a divorce?
I'll always have the feeling that Shaq and Kobe had at least one more championship run left in them if they had managed to stay together. On Friday afternoon, O'Neal tried not to dwell on what he didn't do during his career. He wished he could have helped LeBron win a ring in Cleveland or helped the Celtics raise another banner in Boston, but he won't be defined by what he did while wearing those jerseys.
O'Neal cracked jokes about his free throw shooting costing him a chance to cross the 30,000-point plateau. He semi-apologized to the Orlando Magic, saying he left for Los Angeles in part for selfish reasons, seduced by the allure of making movies and hip-hop albums.
He was at home, literally, in the gymnasium of his Isleworth mansion, the giant room draped with black curtains, a catered meal awaiting his family, friends and media members.
And he kept insisting he did it Sinatra style. Even when it came to all the drama with Kobe.
"It went the way I wanted it to go," Shaq said. "The crazy thing was, we never had drama in the practice and the games. The problem was, I say something to you, you write it. He says something to Bill [Plaschke of the L.A. Times], he writes it. So when it first started going on, my thing was, in Hollywood, there's actors, there's actresses, then there's Shaq and Kobe. Let's go with it for a while. The first two years, for me, it was all fun. The third year, it was a little more personal. But we won three out of four. I wouldn't change anything.
"We were talked about every day. In the marketing world, in any business, that's what you want."
Ultimately, the Lakers were Jerry Buss' business, not Shaq's. Buss tired of the constant battling between the two most important employees. The only thing that kept them from being split apart was they kept winning. Privately, some admitted that if not for the championships, the duo would have been split apart much earlier.
By 2004 the money was too great, and the Lakers couldn't justify the expense if even the addition of Karl Malone and Gary Payton didn't help. Buss was willing to keep writing big checks to Kobe or Shaq, but not both. He went with the younger player, whose MVP award was still ahead of him. Shaq was traded to Miami.
"The reason I left wasn't about what Kobe did; it was about something else," Shaq said. "I was making maximum dollars and felt I deserved more. It was a business end. I really don't want to get into that matter because me and Jerry Buss, we're on great terms. It happens I did it my way. As a CEO, you have to make decisions on what you want to do and how you do it. Sometimes I made good decisions; sometimes I made bad decisions."
Wouldn't leaving a team with championships left in it constitute a bad decision?
"I don't like to live in a world of ifs," Shaq said. "But if we would have stayed, possibly we could have got six."
Shaq doesn't live in a world of ifs. He lives in a house behind gates in a gated community. He lives with a lake for a backyard and the choice of dipping into his swimming pool (19 feet deep to accommodate Shaq-dives).
Why did he host his retirement news conference at his house? A: Because he could host it at his house, which had plenty of space for camera setups, viewing chairs and dining tables inside, and TV trucks out front.
The entire compound serves as a reminder of what the self-described poor kid from Newark, N.J., accomplished by adhering to the lessons from his parents.
His basketball achievements -- the championships and points and rebounds and All-Star appearances -- were all listed atop a cake. But who wants to be defined by words and numbers that can fit on a cake? The large house is a better testimonial to the bigger-than-large man.
There was ample room for his kids and nephews and nieces to run around and play video games and shoot on the pop-a-shot baskets.
It all forced you to focus on what O'Neal did do, not what he left on the table. In that regard, maybe we should look at the numbers we have instead of speculating about the numbers that could have been.
Shaq and Kobe won three out of four is the way Shaq kept putting it.
Wouldn't anyone in any sport take three out of four?