PHOENIX – They shared the floor for one more time and, at the end, a trophy. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal stood in the center of the US Airways Center late Sunday, smiling for the cameras and flashbulbs, All-Star MVPs. Shaq wrapped his arm around his old teammate and grinned.
"The Big Legendaries," O'Neal said, forever linking himself to Bryant.
It was enough to melt everyone's heart. After all those long, cold years, after all those stinging barbs and childish raps, hadn't sentimentality finally won out in the end? Shaq+Kobe=BFF. Best Friends Forever.
Together, they had given the world one last entertaining run. Kobe directed traffic, clearing the lane for Shaq, then setting him up for an easy flush. Shaq followed one of Bryant's misses with a thundering dunk. Wasn't this reason to relive those eight seasons they spent together with the Los Angeles Lakers, reason to treasure their three championships? Wasn't nostalgia tugging at both?
"No," Bryant said.
No. That one word said all that needed to be said. Shaq can author the Lakers' revisionist history. He can tell the world his long-running feud with Bryant was "all marketing." Kobe's not playing that game. Not yet, at least.
If this All-Star weekend proved anything – in addition to the Phoenix Suns putting the "fun" back in dysfunction – it's that Bryant isn't quite ready to forgive and forget. He played nice. He smiled. He gave Shaq a hug. He even joined Shaq for a brief interview with TNT's Craig Sager on Saturday. And after the two were named co-MVPs after leading the West to a runaway victory Sunday, Kobe even let Shaq take the trophy home to show his kids.
But sentimental? Kobe doesn't do sentimental.
"We are not going to go back to the room and watch 'Steel Magnolias' or something like that," Bryant said. "You know what I'm saying, crying, all that stuff. We had a good time. That's all."
Good time is a start. Shaq and Kobe's last game together, a season-ending, dynasty-splintering Game 5 loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, hardly qualified as such. With Shaq wanting a contract extension that Lakers owner Jerry Buss didn't want to give, Los Angeles shipped its franchise center to the Miami Heat. Bryant nearly left that summer, too, flirting with the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls before agreeing to re-sign.
In the two seasons that followed, Shaq rarely passed on an opportunity to zing Kobe. Winning a championship with Dwyane Wade only made it that much easier to taunt Bryant. The ice eventually seemed to thaw between them, but then came last summer. Someone handed Shaq a microphone in a New York club and suddenly he was telling the world, "Last week Kobe couldn't do without me."
Shaq was back on stage Sunday, wearing a mask, dancing and popping during the player introductions. Once again, he was the Big Goof, giving everyone a big laugh.
"It is nothing I haven't seen before," Bryant said.
Midway through the first quarter, Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave the NBA its moment, putting Shaq on the floor with Kobe. Before long, Shaq was dribbling through the lane, trying to wrap the ball behind his back in another act of showmanship. The ball squirted out of bounds and everyone laughed. Not Kobe. Stone-faced as ever, he turned and ran back down the court.
At times over the past few days, Kobe has acted like he couldn't wait for this weekend to end. He showed up late to the media availability session Friday then fielded a barrage of questions about Shaq.
"It wasn't a fun time for me," Bryant finally said, "so I'm not about to revisit it."
Earlier, Shaq had told reporters that he and Bryant "talk a lot." "Um yeah," Bryant said, "we talked over the summer."
During their back-and-forth days with the Lakers, Bryant had frequently played the villain, the selfish, petulant child who longed to escape Shaq's shadow. But one night in New York changed that. As soon as Shaq began to rap, he became the bad guy, petty, aging and insecure. His image had flipped, and he realized as much. Ever since, he's gone out of his way to praise Bryant. On Sunday, he did so again.
Asked to grade Bryant's performance, Shaq said: "He has been the best player in the league, so A-plus on that side. And A-plus for being a great guy."
Great guy? In an interview with ABC, Shaq once famously called Bryant a "Corvette" while referring to himself as the "brick wall." "Shaq-Kobe feud" even has its own Wikipedia page.
Still, for four quarters on Sunday, they were teammates once again. Jackson made sure to keep Kobe and Shaq in situations where they could play off each other. Kobe finished with 27 points. Shaq added 17 in 11 minutes. And when they were done, both were MVPs. The league announced Shaq had won the media vote 5-4, but Kobe earned a 2-1 edge in fan balloting. Add it up, and they were tied.
The NBA had its perfectly scripted ending, along with a few conspiracy theorists.
"It's all about the story lines," said one Eastern Conference executive. "You think the league didn't want this to happen? Is this the NBA or WWF?"
Afterward, Jackson called the reunion a "great life lesson." "This is something that … people find a way to get through situations," he said, "find harmony in their life, find co-habitation."
Kobe's not moving in with Shaq just yet. But he did hug his old teammate one last time. Perhaps this will be remembered as the day their relationship began to improve. Maybe some day they'll both look back fondly on their time together.
Or maybe Shaq is right. Maybe Sunday, too, was all about the marketing.