As the Lakers prepare to retire Shaq's jersey, Kobe now appreciates his former foe
With reconciliation not an option between feuding stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal after the 2004 season, the Lakers were forced to choose sides.
Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss opted for the younger Bryant, who later rewarded him with two championships. Now nearly nine years later, the Lakers are showing their appreciation for O'Neal by retiring his No. 34 jersey Tuesday night, when the Lakers face the Dallas Mavericks.
In one of the team's signature eras, Shaq and Kobe made four NBA Finals appearances with the Lakers, winning three consecutive titles from 2000-02.
O'Neal won his only post-Lakers title with the Miami Heat in 2006, and it's something Bryant won't let the big man live down.
"I always remind him every time I see him," Bryant, who's won five championships with the Lakers, told Yahoo! Sports. "I saw him after the All-Star Game and said, 'How you doing, 'Four' ?' He said, 'Oh, you [expletive].' [Our relationship is] really good now. We have such a mutual respect for each other."
But it wasn't always that way.
The NBA has not had many duos as talented as O'Neal and Bryant, who each had huge egos that proved more challenging than any opponent.
Bryant viewed O'Neal as out of shape and overweight, and questioned his leadership. O'Neal pointed out that he was the "big dog" on the team. He thought Bryant was selfish and didn't pass the ball enough. O'Neal would later say the biggest issues between the two were of the marketing variety.
After falling to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, Bryant had enough when O'Neal compared him to Penny Hardway and the All-Star guard said there was "not a chance" they could play together again.
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"It was inevitable," Bryant said. "You can't expect Michael [Jordan] to play with Wilt [Chamberlain] for his entire career. That's just not going to work. I had too much talent and too much to showcase. And then there was a challenge issued by him about me not being able to win without him. That's a challenge I couldn't pass.
"But ultimately during those years I sacrificed a lot, numbers-wise, to play with him. The thing that always bothered me was people said, 'Well, Kobe's selfish.' I'm not selfish. If I was selfish, I would have left. I gave up a lot to play with him."
What if the Lakers had chosen O'Neal over Bryant?
"I would have went some place else and won more championships," Bryant said. "That's how driven I was. I was just that obsessed about winning without him. Everything was about that. I was obsessive about it and there was nothing that was going to get in my way."
O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat on July 14, 2004, for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and first- and second-round picks. Bryant was re-signed by the Lakers the next day, but that didn't put an end to the rivalry.
In 2009, O'Neal was videotaped rapping at a club, where he said, "Kobe couldn't do without me" while offering other explicit, taunting lyrics. Bryant responded by winning championships in 2009 and 2010. Among Bryant's first comments after winning the 2010 title was that he had passed O'Neal, who eventually retired in 2011.
"Personalities and playing for each other weren't the best of dynamics because he always wanted to do things a certain way and I was always on him about his work ethic," Bryant said. "He didn't want to hear that, but I didn't care.
"It was tough for that relationship to work forever. But there was a mutual respect, and that's why you see us engaging with each other and conversing with each other because we knew what that was about."
Despite the many issues, Bryant added that he "really, really learned a lot" during O'Neal's time with the Lakers from 1996-2004.
"The thing that I respected about him was when he stepped on the court he was ferocious. That's the thing we both had in common. Between those lines nothing could stop us," Bryant said.
O'Neal averaged 27 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks per game in 514 regular-season contests with the Lakers. His best Laker season was the 1999-2000 campaign in which he averaged an NBA-best 29.7 points per game and won the regular-season and NBA Finals MVP awards.
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O'Neal will become the ninth Laker to have his jersey retired when his No. 34 is hung in the Staples Center rafters Tuesday night. The others honored: Wilt Chamberlain (13), Elgin Baylor (22), Gail Goodrich (25), Magic Johnson (32), Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (33), James Worthy (42), Jerry West (44) and Jamaal Wilkes (52), who are all in the Hall of Fame. While O'Neal was known for his toughness on the floor, Bryant believes a softer side will be seen Tuesday night.
"Throughout his career he's always tried not to be sensitive," Bryant said. "But hopefully he will kind of let himself go a little bit. The fans should give him what he deserves because he gave us phenomenal, phenomenal years."
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