We all know how the relationship between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was up and down. It seemed to fall to an all-time low spurred by Kobe.
Shaq and Kobe were both headcases, albeit in different ways. While Kobe was a hard worker, he often lacked the soft skills so as not to antagonize his teammates. He was mostly a withdrawn character who kept to himself.
Shaq, on the other hand, was popular with teammates and also getting a bit complacent. 3 straight Finals MVPs played no small part in that, as he showed when he took time off in the 2002-03 season to get an operation done. ‘Got hurt on company time, will heal on company time’ was his justification for this.
Lakers VP Jim Black reveals how bad things got between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq’s decision to have the operation during the season came in 2003. In a subsequent interview with ESPN’s Jim Gray, Kobe tore into Shaq’s physical condition and leadership:
“But this is his team, so it’s time for him to act like it. That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court.”
“It also means no more blaming others for our team’s failure or blaming staff members for not overdramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning.”
“Also, ‘my team’ doesn’t mean only when we win; it means carrying the burden of defeat just as gracefully as you carry a championship trophy.”
Jim Black gave an interview to Bleacher Report about this whole saga a number of years later, in 2015:
“Mostly it was Shaq and Kobe didn’t like each other, but it didn’t affect them on the court. They would say something about the other, on or off the record, but it didn’t become confrontational more than two or three times over the eight years.”
“When Kobe gave the statement to Jim Gray where he went off calling Shaq fat and lazy, that was one of the times. There was one really bad one, early on. Brian Shaw had to pull them apart. Shaq threatened to murder Kobe.”
How did Shaq and Kobe fare after this?
Many fans rate 2002-03 as the time when Kobe Bryant announced himself as the best player in the league. Shaq was absent down the stretch for a few games when Kobe started a streak of 40-point games.
Phil Jackson asked Kobe to dial it back a bit when Shaq came back. Kobe protested by scoring 39 points and passing for the rest of the game at that time.
Obviously, this indicates that the situation was untenable in the long term, and so it turned out. Tim Duncan’s Spurs reversed their 2001 humiliation by sweeping Kobe and Shaq in 2003. The Lakers returned to the Finals one last time with Kobe and Shaq the following year before they traded the latter away to Miami.