The Los Angeles Lakers birthed one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history at the turn of the century. Powered by a dominant one-two punch of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers overwhelmed opposing teams in the paint and on the perimeter.
However, this Lakers team took awhile to gel. When O’Neal signed with the Lakers in the summer of 1996, general manager Jerry West had used the recently-drafted Bryant as incentive for O’Neal to come to Hollywood. But in the first couple of years, it was Shaq who ultimately determined the team’s success. Of course, that would not be the case for long. Kobe would eventually ascend to new heights, becoming one of the best players in the league and helping propel the Lakers to a three-peat.
But when did Bryant first find the “Mamba Mentality” that helped make him one of the most ruthless competitors in the history of the league?
Not afraid to fail
Bryant has become the most comparable player to Michael Jordan since MJ last donned a uniform in 2003. But before Jordan dazzled NBA fans by dropping 38 points with the stomach flu in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals in Utah against the Jazz, Bryant had his own “baptism,” of sorts.
The Lakers got off to a good start in the era of O’Neal, winning 56 games during the 1996-97 regular season and winning their first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Shaq was dominant, averaging 26.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.9 blocks on the year. Kobe, on the other hand, never really found his stride under head coach Del Harris. Bryant played in 71 games, but he averaged 7.6 points on under 16 minutes per game.
Kobe had provided a spark in the second round of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz, but the Lakers still found themselves down 1-3 in the series heading into Game 5 in Salt Lake City. The game went down to the wire, and the Lakers had the chance to steal a game on the road and return home with some optimism.
Bryant would thrive in these situations later in his career. But as an 18-year-old rookie that was just now getting his first extended run with his team, Kobe had a clunker. He put up four airballs between the end of the fourth quarter and overtime, crucial misses that ended the Lakers’ long-shot comeback hopes in the series.
For his part, Bryant shot 4-of-14 from the field, finishing with 11 points in 29 minutes. However, the biggest takeaway is not the failure itself, but rather what O’Neal imparted on the youngster after the game.
“I said,`You know what, you might have shot four airballs… see all these people in here laughing at you… just remember that when we meet these guys next year — then just hit it.’ You’ve got to remember stuff like that,” Shaq said about his pep talk with Kobe, via Ballislife. “I wasn’t upset that he shot those airballs. He was the only one with enough guts to shoot the ball.”
Kobe would find solace in the fact that one of the best players in the NBA had faith in his abilities, and he would get back in the gym almost immediately.
By his sophomore season, Bryant would become the youngest player to be named a starter at the NBA All-Star game. Though Harris was still causing friction by repeatedly forcing Bryant to come off the bench, things would change dramatically when the Lakers hired Phil Jackson.
“Don’t worry big fella”
Harris finally made Kobe a starter for the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season, and while Kobe’s numbers improved across the board, the Lakers were out in the second round of the playoffs as multiple coaching changes disrupted team chemistry.
But West and Dr. Jerry Buss acted swiftly to resolve the head-coaching vacancy, bringing Phil Jackson out of retirement following his unprecedented run of success with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Jackson would immediately make an impact on a roster that also re-loaded with veteran pieces to support O’Neal and Bryant.
The Lakers won 67 games and O’Neal was named the 1999-00 NBA MVP, leading the league in scoring (29.7 ppg) to go along with 13.6 rebounds and three blocks in what is still the finest season of his career. Bryant also improved, upping his scoring average to 22.5 points per game while adding 6.3 boards and 4.9 assists.
Los Angeles experienced a pair of scares prior to reaching the NBA Finals. They were taken to five games by the Sacramento Kings, and also needed to erase a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. Of course, the Lakers would cap that epic comeback with one of the most memorable plays in NBA history: Bryant crossing up Scottie Pippen and tossing a lob to Shaq.
The Lakers took a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals against Indiana Pacers, but they faced adversity in Game 4 in Indiana. O’Neal had dominated most of the game, but he fouled out in overtime. From there, Bryant took over. He hit two straight jumpers before following up a Brian Shaw miss with a reverse tip-in that would seal the win for the Lakers.
Shaq talked about that game being Kobe’s proving ground in their 1-on-1 interview in 2018.
(Skip to 10:25 to hear O’Neal talk about Bryant’s performance)
Although Kobe acknowledges understanding that he still had to “win one for Shaq,” that game established Bryant as one of the most determined closers in the league. The Lakers would go on to win the NBA title, and Bryant’s career took off shortly thereafter.
Can’t stop me now
Kobe’s first taste of championship glory only lifted him to another level. The very next season, his scoring average increased to 28.5 points per game, while he also averaged over five rebounds and five assists.
With Shaq beginning to labor due to nagging injuries and an apparent lack of motivation, it was Bryant who started becoming the focal point of those Lakers teams. Of course, O’Neal would still win the NBA Finals MVP in each of those three championship seasons, but it is safe to say that Kobe’s own drive and hunger forced Shaq to play up to his dominant standards.
We know how the rest of the story played out. Kobe and Shaq were eventually at odds, and with Bryant entering free agency in the summer of 2004, the Lakers traded the older O’Neal and dedicated their future to their superstar guard.
From there, Kobe only built on his legacy as one of the greatest players in NBA history, winning two more titles with the Lakers before walking into the sunset after the 2015-16 NBA season.
But that “Mamba Mentality” that many current players strive to attain was instilled in Bryant practically from the very beginning, which is only fitting given his dogged persona.