Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant didn’t always see eye to eye on the court. Their squabbles about how the team was supposed to play or who should be the center of the Lakers offense often jeopardized their cohesion on the court. But, they did deliver three championships to the city of Los Angeles together, and on another occasion, they were only three wins short of winning a fourth title.
Despite the Hollywood-style drama that the O’Neal and Bryant pairing endured during their run, they had some great moments as well. There was a time when the big man showed his support for his little brother when Bryant was serving a two-game suspension.
Let’s break it down:
4. The Kobe-Reggie Fight
In March of 2002, the Lakers faced off against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in a match-up of the two teams that met in the 2000 NBA Finals. The game was physical but nothing could prepare fans for what came immediately after the final horn sounded to signify a 96-84 Lakers victory.
It’s believed that Miller took exception to Bryant taking a three-point shot (which missed) with seconds to go and the game well in hand. The two met at half court, with Bryant and Miller eventually exchanging punches before the fight spilled over to the scorer’s table.
After the two were separated, Bryant and Miller were each suspended two games by the league.
Later, as Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times reported, Bryant issued an apology to his teammates and explained what happened. His anger toward Miller hadn’t dissipated, though.
“I deserved [the two-game suspension],” he said. “I deserved it. Probably deserved even a little more….
“I’m going to apologize to my teammates because I can’t join them. They’re out there battling and fighting on the court….
“I don’t believe fighting is the answer. At all. I don’t. But sometimes, as a man, you have to do what you have to do….
“We can sit up here and talk about this until we’re all blue in the face. The fact of the matter is, I made a mistake. It wasn’t the best decision in the world. At the time, I felt like it was the right decision. I have to deal with the consequences. I have to deal with the criticism. I just move on and continue to grow and mature as a man. That’s the bottom line.”
Bryant knows that trash-talking is something that Miller is quite fond of, but he believed the Pacers star went too far, involving matters that went beyond their chosen profession.
“Trash-talking is something, it’s part of the game,” Bryant continued. “There’s a thin line between taking things from the basketball court and taking things off the court.”
Miller later said that Bryant was dealing with personal issues that didn’t involve him or the game they had just played. In response, the Lakers star called his Pacers counterpart a ‘fool.’
“Reggie doesn’t know me,” he said. “He doesn’t know me at all. And I’ll never argue with fools. That’s just a waste of time.”
3. O’Neal Wears Kobe’s Jersey
During warmups before facing the Houston Rockets in their next game, O’Neal showed his support for his suspended teammate by donning Bryant’s No. 8 jersey. They didn’t come in O’Neal’s size, however, which made the jersey a bit too snug on the 7-foot-1 center’s 330-pound bod. Needless to say, tight-fitting jerseys don’t exactly look good on a man of Shaq’s stature.
— Mr. CJ (@showtimeJive) May 4, 2018
Due to his suspension, Bryant wasn’t allowed to enter the arena, but he was able to watch on television. The young shooting guard was moved to see his teammate, one he had clashed with often over the years, go the extra mile to be a supportive leader.
O’Neal may have stretched Bryant’s jersey to the point of no return, but it wasn’t a problem for the 6-foot-7 guard.
“I was kind of happy, man,” he said, “because you know how the NBA rules make you wear those tight, little John Stockton uniforms? I was kind of happy. He stretched it out for me. I was hoping maybe he could wear my shorts.”
Going back to the fight with Miller, Bryant seemed more relieved that the fighting was against the opposition rather than in-fighting between Lakers players.
“This is nothing at all,” Bryant said. “It’s better to fight against the opposition than it is to fight amongst ourselves. Last year, we were fighting amongst ourselves and we pulled through just fine.”
Bryant’s suspension cost him $250,000 in salary.
Despite the absence of his All-Star teammate, O’Neal made up for the lack of star power by demolishing the Rockets on his own, submitting 36 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists to give the Lakers a 95-79 victory.
Asked about wearing Bryant’s jersey during the pregame warmups, O’Neal affectionately expressed why he did it.
“That’s my guy. I know they’re going to show it on every channel, and that’s why I did it — to keep him alive,” O’Neal said. “I know he’s going to come back with a vengeance. It’s going to put us right back on track. Everything happens for a reason.”
2. Miller Loves, Hates, Respects Kobe
More than a decade later as Bryant was about to play his last All-Star Game, Miller spoke to USA Today about his relationship with the soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
“I love him, I hate him, and I respect him,” Miller said. “I love him because, when you come in at 18 and you play 20 years at the shooting guard position, and to end it all with one (championship ring) for the thumb and the amount of minutes, points and mileage that he’s put on his baggage, that shows me a love for the game.
“I hate him because, in 2000 when we battled for a championship, he was just too good. Obviously, along with Shaq (O’Neal), that Laker team denied me from the ultimate goal in winning a championship. And I respect him for what he is doing now, because you’ve got to take a back seat. Father time catches up to all of us, and to have to be able to pass the torch and the legacy to guys like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, it’s tough for superstars to give an inch and Kobe has had to take a step back and assess what’s important to him. So I respect him giving back to these young guys and teaching them what it’s going to take to be successful in this league.”
1. The Shaq-Kobe Feud and Reconciliation
We know that Shaq and Kobe didn’t come out of this bonding moment unscathed. Two years later, O’Neal and Bryant broke up their dynastic partnership, with the former going to the Miami Heat and the latter staying on as a Laker.
They fought for the next few years, with O’Neal mostly acting antagonistically toward his former teammate.
Then, on Martin Luther King Day in 2006, O’Neal surprisingly walked over to Bryant during pregame warmups. The once-hostile relationship between the two stars quickly became friendly once more, as they shook hands and hugged each other before tip-off.
What changed O’Neal’s mind?
O’Neal spilled the details after the game, saying that Bill Russell helped patch things up. The legendary Boston Celtics center is well-respected by everyone in the basketball community ,and if there’s anyone who the self-proclaimed Big Aristotle will listen to, it’s the 11-time NBA champion.
“I had orders from the great Bill Russell,” O’Neal said. “Me and him were talking in Seattle the other day and he was telling me how rivalries should be. I asked him if he ever disliked anybody he played against, and he told me no, never, and he told me I should shake Kobe Bryant’s hand and let bygones be bygones and bury the hatchet. Russell is a basketball god, especially at my position.
“Today, when I spoke to (Bryant), we spoke about something that was more important than basketball. He’s having a little daughter, so I told him and his wife congratulations upon the baby. Today is a day of peace.”
O’Neal added the following words that made him realize how important it was for the two stars to kiss and make up.
“Dr. Martin Luther King was an ambassador of peace. So when I talked to Mr. Russell, he told me he said that him and [ Wilt ] Chamberlain spoke once or twice a week before he passed away. And even though people thought they hated each other, there was nothing but love there.”
— SHAQ (@SHAQ) February 12, 2016
Bryant welcomed the change in his relationship with O’Neal.
“I think it’s great,” Bryant said at halftime. “You know, just putting the past behind us, just move on. We had three great years together. I think it was important for the fans to see. It was good for us to be able to put this behind us and move on.”
Shaq wearing Kobe’s No. 8 jersey was a touching moment in the roller-coaster relationship between the Laker greats, who will go down as one of the best one-two punches in league annals. If only they had a more harmonious time together, they could have easily won at least three more championships.
Alas, O’Neal had to settle for one more title with the Heat in 2006 while Dwyane Wade took center stage, and Bryant won two more in 2009 and 2010 alongside Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
No matter their differences, that moment in 2002 will always be one of the highlights of the Lakers teammates’ time together in Los Angeles.