Kobe Bryant is still upset. That’s nothing new, the man sort of thrives on this steely nastiness that has paired with his significant physical gifts to gift the NBA with a transcendent era. The Bryant Era, one we’re in no hurry to shoo away, was paired for eight of its initial seasons with Shaquille O’Neal, a larger-than-life character and player who had the abilities, size and smarts to turn into the NBA’s greatest center ever.
The problem was that nobody knew we were in a Kobe Bryant era during his rookie season, and for the next seven seasons after that neither O’Neal nor subsequent Laker coaches wanted the Bryant era to take hold, preferring instead to mainly go through the league-altering O’Neal as Los Angeles chased down three championships. Following O’Neal’s peak season of 1999-00, though, he routinely returned from summers off looking out of shape and often not nearly as motivated as the trimmed-down giant who dominated during his lone MVP season.
Bryant, who had a front-row seat to these changes, is still frustrated at how things fell apart. From a piece in the New Yorker, by Ben McGrath:
For Bryant, an obsessive who prides himself on a kind of basketball virtuosity (“As far as one on one, I’m the best to ever do it,” he has said), O’Neal represented an affront to the game itself: a giant so physically dominant around the rim that his indifference to mastering something as elementary as free throws was rendered maddeningly inconsequential.
“It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy,” Bryant told me. “You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through (bleep).” O’Neal was a clown, and beloved for it, while Bryant, who once told Newsweek that he didn’t believe in happiness, remained aloof. “I was stubborn as a (bleep) mule,” he said. Bryant shunned reporters whom he saw talking to O’Neal. O’Neal, in turn, refused to accept help from the same trainers who taped Bryant’s ankles. Their desperate coach, the Buddhist, bookish Phil Jackson, wound up consulting a therapist, and at one point recommended that O’Neal read “Siddhartha.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since the breakup, and it really still is nearly impossible to articulate just how pointless and pathetic this all is.
Both sides are at fault here, and though Bryant’s petulance may not have played out in basketball terms as much as O’Neal’s, his off-court issues, basically publicly accusing O’Neal of cheating on his wife on record, and free-agent dalliances with the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls after the Lakers were already on Kobe’s side and had dealt O’Neal were pretty damn destructive.
Of course, Kobe’s not wrong about Shaq basically gliding for the final decade of his career. Yes, he took more punishment as a player than anyone else in the NBA during that time, but Shaquille O’Neal’s legendary career can, in many ways, be looked at as a disappointment.
It’s true that his career overlapped with MVPs like Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, that Kobe’s fantastic play took away from potential stat-padding, and it’s very much true that O’Neal should have won the 2001 NBA MVP over the storyline that was Allen Iverson, but for Shaq to retire with just one MVP award in 19 seasons of play is ridiculous. His one MVP, earned in 1999-00, came about because O’Neal showed up to training camp in the best shape of his life.
Those other years? Relative to Kobe, he was lazy. Relative to the rest of the league? Still, probably pushing lazy.
Shaq worked off his offseason during training camp and the season’s first few months, which led to nagging foot and toe injuries that lasted throughout the season. Again, nobody had a tougher job than O’Neal when he was the focal point of three different NBA teams from 1992-2006, but O’Neal famously decided he was going to both work off the weight and rehab “on company time,” only admitting to it in 2002, but basically living by that ideal for most of his post-MVP career.
Because O’Neal was so darn great, with Kobe not far behind, it barely mattered. The team nearly swept the entire 2001 postseason despite sleepwalking for most of the 2000-01 regular season, losing only one time in overtime to Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. One can deride the team’s 2002 Finals win over the New Jersey Nets with a dismissive nod due to a weak Eastern Conference that season, but Los Angeles’ run through the Trail Blazers, Spurs and Sacramento Kings in the Western bracket was no joke.
Shaq’s conditioning, Kobe’s nerve and a declining supporting cast caught up to the Lakers in 2003, when they lost in the second round to San Antonio. And by the time the team gave up against a hungrier Detroit Pistons squad in the 2004 NBA Finals, O’Neal and Bryant’s relationship had become bestselling book fodder.
Which is a shame. A team that hires near-prime Shaquille O’Neal and deals for 18-year-old Kobe Bryant in 1996 shouldn’t peter out with a mere three titles some eight years later. Again, Michael Jordan and then Tim Duncan were in place for the duration of that run, but one can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out had O’Neal been more professional and had Bryant not acted like an only child forced to share his toys with other kids at the birthday party he thought was his.
O’Neal retired in 2011, and Bryant is going to give it one last go with a heretofore unknown cast of teammates starting in the summer of 2014, a full decade after Shaq was dealt from Los Angeles. And though you think time and family and further championships and, I don’t know, tact would have set in by now, Bryant still won’t stop talking about how disappointed he is.
And as a result, I suppose, neither will we.
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