Editor’s note: The following story contains excerpts from Jeff Pearlman’s new book, “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” published by Houghton-Mifflin. The book is on sale today, Sept. 22.
A young Kobe Bryant
Before Kobe Bryant was THE Kobe Bryant — five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star — he was a young boy growing up in Italy, the third of Joe and Pam Bryant’s three children. His father, an eight-year NBA veteran nicknamed Jellybean, was playing out his career overseas, and his young son inherited the old man’s athleticism and instincts. What he boasted — far more than Dad — was drive. Or, put differently, Kobe Bryant desperately wanted to be a superstar …
“FROM DAY ONE I was dribbling,” Kobe Bryant once said, in the nostalgic manner of a man appreciative of from where he once rose. “I just found basketball to be the most fun. It wasn’t just watching my father play. It was the fact that you could dribble the ball around everywhere. You could play the game by yourself and envision certain situations.” Kobe spoke fluent Italian, enrolled in ballet classes, excelled in organized soccer, developed a taste for bruschetta and panzanella. Basketball existed as a thing in Italy, but not a big thing. So when the Bryants installed a hoop at the end of the driveway, it was unusual behavior. As his Italian peers were watching Mio Mao and Quaq Quao, Kobe was absorbing the VHS tapes sent to him by his grandfather — the ones showing Magic and Bird and a young Chicago Bulls star named Michael Jordan. “I loved the feel of [the basketball] in my hands,” he once recalled. “I loved the sound of it, too. The tap, tap, tap of when a ball bounces on the hardwood. The crispness and clarity. The predictability.”
As Kobe grew, Joe and Pam signed him up to play on Italian youth basketball teams. He was always the best player, and the least-liked player — so superior to his teammates that he rarely looked their way. Peers would scream, “Kobe, passa la palla!” (“Kobe, pass the ball!”), and he would respond simply, “No” (“No”). Not unlike a good number of children with famous parents and a shiny silver spoon, Kobe was known to be arrogant, curt, dismissive of other children. He wasn’t hated so much as he was disdained. The only arrow in the other players’ quill was something they repeatedly told Kobe — “Sei bravo qui, ma non sarai molto in America!” (“You’re good here, but you won’t be much in America”).
Each summer, with the conclusion of Joe’s seasons, the Bryants returned to Philadelphia. But it was a clumsy fit for Kobe, the African American kid with the European air and the slightest hint of an Italian accent.
In July 1991, shortly before his 13th birthday, Kobe Bryant was signed up by his father to compete in the summertime Sonny Hill Community Involvement League, where Philadelphia’s best young basketball players went at it on courts in Temple’s McGonigle Hall. Joe had starred in Sonny Hill games back in the day, and he thought the hardened stylings of the city’s fiercest ballers would do his son good. So he filled out the application, then handed the sheet of paper to his son, who had to enter some personal information. When Kobe arrived for his first day of competition, a counselor read over his replies.
NAME: KOBE BEAN BRYANT
FUTURE CAREER PLAN: NBA
“Are you being serious?” the counselor asked.
Bryant nodded. He was indeed — which led staffers to pay extra attention to the boy with the oddball name and the written swagger. What they found was laughable. In Italy, the kids wore volleyball kneepads in games. So Kobe, thinking this was the norm, brought the style (or lack thereof ) to Philly. “I’m out there looking like the Cable Guy,” he later recalled. In Italy, he was an unstoppable basketball force, driving in for layups with no worry. Back in America, he was a fish-out-of-water scrub with poor fashion sense and Osgood-Schlatter disease, which shot excruciating pain through his knees. In 25 games, Bryant tallied zero points. “I didn’t score a basket, a free throw, nothing,” he recalled. “At the end I sobbed my eyes out.”
While Kobe Bryant stunk, though, he didn’t plan on stinking for long. He was back at Sonny Hill the following summer, played passably well, scored a few baskets, performed admirably on defense.
The Bryants left Italy for good after the 1991-92 season, and Kobe’s return to full-time American life commenced as an eighth grader, when he enrolled at Bala Cynwyd Junior High, in the leafy western suburbs of Philadelphia. The school was 70 percent Caucasian, and Kobe struggled to fit in with anyone. He wasn’t white. His “blackness” felt forced. He spoke Italian, and nobody spoke Italian. All the faces were unfamiliar. He was far more poised than your average student, and this made him come across as aloof and arrogant. Thanks to his athletic gifts and his status as an American outsider, Kobe had spent most of his early years standing out. Now, back in the fold of the United States, he still felt as if he stood out. As if he were, somehow, better.
Which he was.
The rich talent that congregated at Sonny Hill every summer couldn’t be found at Bala Cynwyd, and Kobe — armed with increased skills, legitimate experience, dreamy genetics (not only was his father a former NBA player, but Pam’s brother, Chubby Cox, spent part of the 1983 season with the Washington Bullets), and unyielding confidence — dominated. Now standing 6-foot-2, he played for the school’s eighth-grade team and owned the court, averaging 30 points per game. It was a laughable sight: the sleek, smooth Bryant having his way with the overmatched children surrounding him. Gregg Downer, the varsity coach at Lower Merion High, heard of the youth’s exploits and invited him to participate in one of the Aces’ varsity practices. Kobe entered the gymnasium accompanied by his 6-foot-9 father. “Holy s—, that’s Joe Bryant,” Downer whispered to an assistant. “Jellybean Bryant.”
A former player at Division III Lynchburg (Virginia) College, Downer was 27 and immediately recognized that the boy was no ordinary basketball player. Bryant showed no fear. He threw elbows at the varsity players, set crushing picks. Five minutes into practice, Downer turned to someone and said, “This kid is a pro.”
“I knew right away I had something very special on my hands,” Downer said. “He was so fundamentally good at the age of 13, and I thought to myself that he was going to get nothing but taller and stronger.”
As a freshman at Lower Merion, Bryant made Downer’s varsity squad, starting and averaging 18 points for a team that went 4-20. What stood out was his ferocious intensity. Bryant didn’t merely dislike losing — he abhorred it. He didn’t merely fret over missed free throws — he burdened himself with their existence. Other players laughed off a poor showing, a sloppy pass, a lazy turnover. Not Bryant. He believed in perfection, and nothing short of that ever seemed to satisfy him. Once, during a practice, Downer barked at his freshman for failing to play defense the Lower Merion way. “Well,” Bryant replied, “that’s not what I’m going to do in the NBA!”
On a school trip to Hersheypark, a student named Susan Freedland asked his assistance in helping her win a stuffed animal at a free throw shooting stall. Classmates gathered around, laughing, giggling. But Kobe stoically grabbed a ball, lined up, stared down the rim, and shot — swish.
Shot again — swish.
Shot again — swish.
Susan was handed a blue elephant with green tusks, and thanked Kobe for his assistance. But he wasn’t done. He returned to the game, plunked down another $3.
Shot again — swish.
Shot again — swish.
The man running the booth — agitated, defeated — surrendered another elephant and told Bryant to bug off.
This wasn’t fun for Kobe. None of it was. It meant something. Being the best. Finding greatness. Refusing to surrender. Over the next two decades, people questioned the desire’s origin, wondered what had made Kobe Bryant a Jordanesque basketball killer. The answers, truly, can be found at Lower Merion, where in his relative isolation and solitude he committed himself to his closest friend: the game of basketball.
Kobe joins the Lakers
The Lakers possessed the 24th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft — which meant they’d likely be adding (at best) a fringe role player or long-term project. But thanks to the wizardry of Jerry West, the team’s executive vice president, Los Angeles swung a deal with Charlotte to acquire the rights to a high school kid out of suburban Philadelphia named Kobe Bean Bryant. When the Lakers reported to training camp in Hawaii, veterans were immediately taken aback by the newbie’s arrogance. Though he was out with a broken wrist, Bryant made an immediate impression …
THE ASSEMBLED TALENT before Del Harris was breathtaking. Harris asked each man to stand and introduce himself.
Shaquille O’Neal, jolly and giggly, stood first, nodded, said, “What’s up? I’m Shaq. Let’s do this.”
One by one, the other men followed.
“Hey, I’m Derek Fisher. Rookie. From little ol’ Arkansas. Ready to get to work.”
“Nick Van Exel. Fourth year here.”
“Eddie Jones. I’m from Florida. Went to Temple …”
“I’m Jerome Kersey. This will be my — what? — 13th year in the league. Crazy.”
“Yo, I’m Kobe. Kobe Bryant. I’m from PA — went to Lower Merion High School, dominated everything.” (Pause.) “I just want y’all to know, nobody’s gonna punk me. I’m not gonna let anyone in the NBA punk me. So be warned.”
“It was like ‘Yo, Kobe, relax,'” recalled David Booth, who landed a camp invite off of a strong summer league showing. “He was trying to establish himself, which I understand. But it didn’t play very well.”
“Not the best way to start things,” said Corie Blount, a reserve forward. “But you have to remember, he was a child.”
His first-day introduction was received like spoiled milk, and as camp progressed, the veteran Lakers were taken aback by his perceived smugness. When Van Exel joined the Lakers out of Cincinnati in 1993, he had arrived humble and quiet. When Jones came a year later, he had arrived humble and quiet. Travis Knight, the rookie center, was humble and quiet. Fisher was humble and quiet.
Bryant was neither humble nor quiet. But he sat, unavailable, with a bum wrist. So he was deemed largely off-limits. “We did not get to haze him quite as much,” recalled Cedric Ceballos. “Getting doughnuts and carrying bags and that sort of thing. Shaq did have him do some goofy things, like bust a freestyle rap for all of us.
“[Kobe] was different. Most rookies want the approval of veterans. He never really was that way.”
Had Bryant been participating, he would have — most veterans later agreed — ruined camp. Or, if not ruined, severely damaged. Van Exel, Jones, and Ceballos, the three returnees with the greatest offensive responsibilities, needed to adjust to O’Neal’s dominant low-post presence, and the addition of a can’t-touch-this, better-than-the-best ball-hogging teenager was not a requisite ingredient. On the sidelines, and in limited drills, Bryant took pleasure in showing off twisting layups and off-balance jumpers. He wanted people to notice, desperately wanted teammates to see what all the hype was about. O’Neal began referring to him as “Showboat,” and if the nickname wasn’t direct ridicule per se, it was anything but a compliment.
“I knew right away I had something very special on my hands. He was so fundamentally good at the age of 13, and I thought to myself that he was going to get nothing but taller and stronger.” Gregg Downer, then-varsity basketball coach at Lower Merion High
What struck some of the Lakers as most odd was the kid’s mimicking of Michael Jordan, the legendary Bull whose VHS tapes Bryant watched growing up in Italy. It wasn’t just a basketball thing. It was an everything. Bryant licked his lips like Jordan, shrugged his shoulders like Jordan, patterned his speech like Jordan. Homage was one thing. But this was not so much homage as stalker. “He clearly wanted to be Michael Jordan at the beginning,” said Knight. “In every way imaginable.”
With Bryant sidelined, the team jelled at a rapid pace. The Lakers opened the preseason on October 10 with an evening game against the Denver Nuggets inside Honolulu’s Special Events Arena, and anyone expecting gradual growing pains was terribly mistaken. Wearing his new No. 34 purple-and-gold uniform and slimmed down from a week of sweaty gym work, O’Neal played 26 minutes, scoring 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting, with 12 rebounds and, in the words of Mike Fitzgerald of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “several thunder dunks that could have caused tsunami warnings.” During one thrilling second-quarter sequence, he scored 6 points in less than 60 seconds, with a blocked shot and a rebound tossed in. Los Angeles won 111-101, a meaningless victory that was anything but meaningless. With 10,225 spectators on hand, Van Exel and Jones seemed at ease dumping the ball down low, spreading out, letting O’Neal dictate the pace. Even Ceballos, selfish as the sun is bright, stayed free of the paint, granting the big man his space. Afterwards, O’Neal stood in the joyous locker room and bragged of his greatness.
“No one can out-surf me!” he said. “I am the Big Kahuna!”
Six days later, after the Nuggets and the Lakers squared off one more time before returning to the mainland, Bryant finally became an active NBA player — at 18 years and 55 days of age, the youngest man in league history. The Lakers traveled to lovely Fresno, California, to battle the Dallas Mavericks in an exhibition, and in the leadup Bryant was like a puppy seeking table scraps. He paced the locker room, paced the hallways. During warm-ups before tipoff, Byron Scott stood by Bryant’s side, advising him to take it easy, relax, enjoy the moment. Scott loved the kid’s passion and drive, but he recognized a familiar eagerness to run before walking. “Your time will come” was a familiar mantra. “Your time will come.”
Harris viewed Bryant as a deep reserve whose minutes would be limited. He allowed him to enter the game with 7:49 remaining in the second quarter, and the 10,274 fans at Fresno’s Selland Arena chanted, “Ko-Be! Ko-Be!” The first time he touched the basketball, Bryant — nervous, a bit clumsy — mishandled it. He recovered, then passed to center Sean Rooks under the basket for a quick score. Moments later, his sneaker (the Adidas EQT Elevation he was paid millions to wear) fell off, and he fumbled to return it to his right foot as action resumed. Late in the game, after scoring his first-ever bucket on a three-pointer, followed by a turn-around jumper, a breakaway dunk, and a 16-foot jumper, Bryant dribbled and dribbled and dribbled some more, until the mild-mannered Harris screamed, “Hey, pass the ball! This isn’t high school anymore!”
It was, overall, a strong debut — 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting. In the Lakers’ locker room, teammates were largely complimentary. They understood that a high school guard making his NBA debut was the story that needed to be told, so Van Exel said that Bryant had “shot the ball pretty well. He’s real active.” Harris added that he’d “made some mistakes and he did some good things.”
When O’Neal emerged, he was asked to add his assessment. He began to sing — tune by Whitney Houston, lyrics by Shaquille O’Neal.
“I believe that Showboat is the fuuuture … “
It was going to be an interesting season.
Though no one expected a teenaged Kobe Bryant to immediately carry the Lakers toward the promised land, his first two postseasons ended in bitter disappointment. In Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference semifinals, his four late airballs against Utah sealed a Los Angeles defeat. One year later, the Lakers were demolished by the Jazz in the conference finals — another embarrassment.
The 1998-99 season was delayed by a lockout that cut 32 games off the schedule and left at-home players bored, agitated, exasperated.
And a bit angry.
IN THE WEEKS and months that followed yet another disappointing conclusion to a Los Angeles Lakers season, the NBA decided to lock out its players. Unlike, say, Milwaukee or Cleveland, life in Los Angeles without the NBA continued relatively smoothly. No one was happy about the lockout, but there were distractions and, in regard to the Lakers, interesting subplots of varied importance to whet the celebrity appetite. For example, Magic Johnson, the team vice president and hoops legend, had been hired by 20th Television to host an hourlong talk show, The Magic Hour.
The program featured a comedy troupe, a house band fronted by Sheila E., and not one single shred of redeeming entertainment value. If Johnson isn’t the worst host in television history, it’s only because Gabrielle Carteris walks the earth. The show lasted eight weeks before suffering a necessary death. When it was canceled, a nation exhaled and returned to watching Love Boat reruns.
The indignity was profound. But at least Johnson’s embarrassment was in a secondary field. The same could not be said for Shaquille O’Neal, who — around the same time Magic was landing that big interview with Vanessa Marcil — was facing a very public and painful rejection. After six years of paying him to be their superstar endorser of athletic shoes, Reebok cut the Lakers center loose. Dave Fogelson, the company’s spokesperson, said Reebok and O’Neal had “mutually agreed” to not renew a five-year, $15 million sponsorship deal — and this was pure fib. What the company had learned through its failed partnership with the 7-foot-1, 325-pound mountain was that sneaker buyers don’t relate very well to 7-foot-1, 325-pound mountains. When Sports Marketing Newsletter projected its top 10 endorsement earners for 1998-99, O’Neal was nowhere to be seen. He was cold product. Or, put simply, he was unrelatable to the average consumer.
More on Kobe Bryant
It was that sort of run for O’Neal, who was also accused of grabbing a woman by the neck while waiting outside a club on the grounds of the Disney World resort. The charges were quickly dropped, but the PR blowback was harsh. Among peers, meanwhile, O’Neal was not making any friends with his I’m-rich-so-I-don’t-care-about-the-lockout outlook on things. “I don’t really know what they’re fighting about,” he told the Associated Press. “I make good money and I’m happy with my life.”
All of this contributed to O’Neal’s out-of-the-norm grouchiness. It hardly helped that, midway through the lockout, Los Angeles Magazine published a 4,646-word story headlined KOBE BRYANT: PRINCE OF THE CITY. The article, written by Mark Rowland, was a glowing puff piece about a man the newspaper was all but anointing the next Michael Jordan. Wrote Rowland:
Right now, by NBA standards, Bryant is a pretty good basketball player. By the standards of marketing and entertainment, he’s a global superstar, the most popular commodity in the league after Mr. Jordan. His visage is omnipresent, hawking for Adidas, Spalding, Sprite, his own Nintendo game and God knows what else. Already Bryant’s story is the stuff of myth, proof biblical that even after Jordan, God’s divine plan for his favorite sports league continues to unfold.
By now, O’Neal was no Bryant fan. He had tired of the selfish play, of the single-minded life approach that excluded any Laker not named Kobe. Peter Vecsey, the New York Post basketball guru, had it right when he wrote, “Kobe’s all-around splendor is unquestionable and, obviously, he’s willing to outwork anybody to improve. But because he’s so good, he’s impossible to play with, because he always feels he can beat his man. Everybody else gets to watch him hoist up pot shots, hurried shots and contested shots. That’s not good when you’ve got Shaq, bigger than an industry, posted on the low blocks waiting impatiently to get plugged into the play.”
O’Neal wanted to be the king, ruling over his loyal subjects. “Jerry West wanted that, Shaq wanted that,” recalled J.A. Adande, the Los Angeles Times scribe. “But Kobe always bristled at that. He was no man’s little brother.”
“You have to let people be who they are,” O’Neal recalled years later. “Some people do different things to make it. He wanted to be the Will Smith of the NBA. He wanted to work out seven, eight, nine hours per day. That’s fine. That’s you. I wanted a relationship that he wasn’t really interested in. I get it.”
The animosity mounted. Not in Bryant’s mind — he had bigger things to worry about than the big man’s acceptance. But to O’Neal, the slights stung. A few months earlier, People magazine had featured Bryant in its World’s Most Beautiful People issue, and the kid seemed to lap it up. “He’s quickly becoming one of the main marketing tools of the NBA,” Rick Fox, the Laker forward, observed. “Which means that someone else isn’t.” Dating back to his rookie season in Orlando, no one rejected Shaquille O’Neal. If he offered to buy a rookie teammate a suit, the rookie teammate took the suit. If he wanted you to come over and party at his mansion, you came over and partied at his mansion. “As Shaq went, we went,” recalled Fox. “It was his show. But Kobe didn’t care about that. He just didn’t.”
Without NBA games to turn to, players all across the United States spent a good amount of their time running high-level pickup at various gymnasiums and sports clubs. In New York, one might find scores of Knicks and Nets at the 92nd Street Y. And in Los Angeles, home to the Lakers and the Clippers, the place to be was Southwest College, a school of 8,200 students and an oft-available gymnasium.
One never knew who, exactly, would show up from day to day. It could be members of the UCLA and USC teams. It could be some players from UC Irvine or Long Beach State. It could be a handful of Clippers, a handful of Lakers, some NBA vets who lived in L.A. when they weren’t deployed to Denver or Miami. Whatever the case, the games were high-level and highly competitive.
On one particular day, both O’Neal and Bryant arrived at Southwest College, ready to play. It was the first week of January, not long after the Kobe-is-the-next-Jordan piece ran in L.A. Magazine. Some other Lakers were in attendance, as was Olden Polynice, the veteran center who’d spent the preceding four and a half seasons with Sacramento. He was hoping the Lakers would sign him to a free agent contract, and had been told that Mitch Kupchak, the team’s general manager, was planning on showing up. Though they’d battled for years, Polynice and O’Neal enjoyed a friendly relationship. “All I wanted to do was go there and play with Shaq,” Polynice recalled. “The Lakers were my favorite team as a boy. It would have been a dream. I wanted to show Mitch I was serious.”
The players straggled in, loosened up, stretched, shot some jumpers. They proceeded to divide into teams — some guys over here, some guys over there. O’Neal and Polynice — dueling 7-footers — were on different sides. “Kobe was on my squad,” Polynice recalled. “Opposite Shaq.”
It was just another run, until it was no longer just another run. As he was prone to do in pickup, O’Neal called a series of iffy fouls whenever he missed a shot.
“I’m tired of this s—,” Bryant finally said. “Just play.”
“One more comment like that,” O’Neal snapped, “and I slap the s— out of you.”
A few possessions later, Bryant drove toward the rim, leaned into O’Neal’s body, and scooped the ball beneath his raised arm and into the hoop. It was a pretty move, but nothing otherworldly.
“F— you!” he screamed at O’Neal. “This is my team! My motherf—ing team!”
It felt edgy. Everything stopped. “He wasn’t talking about the pickup team,” Polynice recalled. “He was talking about the Lakers.”
O’Neal wasn’t having it. “No, motherf—er!” he screamed. “This is my team!”
“F— you!” Bryant replied. “Seriously — f— you! You’re not a leader. You’re nothing!”
What did he just say?
“I will get your ass traded,” O’Neal said. “Not a problem.”
Several of the participants stepped in to separate the two, and the game eventually continued. But it no longer felt even slightly relaxed or friendly. “We probably went up and down the court two more times,” Polynice said. “Kobe goes to the basket, scores, screams at Shaq, ‘Yeah, motherf—er! That s— ain’t gonna stop me!'”
O’Neal grabbed the ball in order to freeze action.
“Say another motherf—ing word,” he said, staring directly at Bryant.
“Aw, f— you,” Bryant said. “You don’t kn–“
O’Neal slapped Bryant across the face. Hard.
“His hands are huge,” said Blount, who was playing in the game. “The noise was loud.”
Here is Polynice’s recollection: “Then Shaq swung again at Kobe, but he missed. S—! I run over and grab Shaq, because I’m big enough to do so. And Shaq keeps swinging, but everything’s missing because I have his arms. I’m grabbing on to Shaq, holding on for dear life, yelling, ‘Somebody grab Kobe! Seriously — somebody grab him!’ Because I’m holding Shaq and Kobe’s taking swings at him. At one point Shaq gets an arm loose and he pops me in the head. Seriously, no good deed goes unpunished. And I’m telling you, if Shaq gets loose he would have killed Kobe Bryant. I am not exaggerating. It was along the lines of an I-want-to-kill-you-right-now punch. He wanted to end Kobe’s life in that moment.”
Bryant was undeterred. “You’re soft!” he barked. “Is that all you’ve got? You’re soft!” Blount begged Bryant to stop talking. “You’re not helping,” he said. “Just shut up.” The altercation was finally broken up when Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard, walked onto the floor and calmed his friend down. O’Neal was furious. “You can’t touch him in practice,” he wrote of Bryant. “He’s acting like Jordan, where some players thought you couldn’t touch Mike. Whenever somebody ripped Kobe, he’d call a foul. After a while, I’m like, ‘Listen, man, you don’t have to start calling that punk s—.'” As he walked from the court, Polynice looked at a shaken Kupchak and said, loudly, “You should sign me just for that.”
He did not — Olden Polynice spent the 1998-99 season with Seattle.
“They were just two alpha males who couldn’t coexist,” Polynice said. “Shaq’s mindset was, ‘This is my team.’ Kobe’s mindset was, ‘Nobody’s gonna punk me.’ You can’t have two alpha males. It doesn’t work.”
He paused, reflecting on the insanity.
“It never, ever works. Even when it does.”
The battle for the Lakers
When the Lakers finally broke through, defeating the Indiana Pacers in six games to capture the 2000 NBA Finals, one would be justified in believing any hostilities between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant would now vanish. Yet one would also be wrong. If anything, with success came greater strife. O’Neal was now firmly established as the NBA’s most dominant player — and he expected to be acknowledged as such. Bryant, on the other hand, eyed his larger-than-life teammate skeptically. He didn’t think he worked hard; didn’t think he took the game seriously. As a result, hostilities were tangible heading into 2000-01.
ONCE UPON A time, O’Neal loved the big brother-little brother model, where he’d guide and mold and encourage young Kobe in a sort of Batman and Robin setup. But now he realized it was an impossibility. Bryant was, truly, unbearable. The way he needed to challenge veteran guard J.R. Rider from the day he arrived. The way he needed to belittle rookie free agent Mike Penberthy. The way he, once again, was hogging the basketball, dribbling without looking up, turning the triangle into a piece of warped cardboard. Bryant wanted other players to share his intensity, but no one shared his intensity. O’Neal, in particular, had spent the months after his first ring celebrating as he had never celebrated before. “While Kobe shot jumpers,” the author Elizabeth Kaye wrote, “Shaq feasted on the fried shrimp, mayonnaise, ketchup, and cheese concoctions he called Shaq Daddy sandwiches. He took his posse to Las Vegas, gave them $10,000 for the gambling tables, and kept hours that gave him headaches. … That summer, as Shaq sightings occurred at what he called gentlemen’s clubs and at Fatburger at three in the morning, that notion — you are what you repeatedly do — still had application.”
The Lakers opened their title defense with a 6-4 record; the locker room felt cold, hostile, detached. O’Neal refused to hide his disdain for Bryant, especially after the kid launched 31 (yes, thirty-one) shots in a 91-81 loss to San Antonio. “We need to play smarter,” O’Neal said to the assembled reporters — a not so subtle euphemism for “It’d be lovely if the child passed the ball on occasion.”
Thus commenced one of the most interesting internal mini-dramas of the season — the Shaq v. Kobe Media Shuffle. After every game, reporters entered the locker room and encircled one of the stars. Then, when that man was done talking, they’d shuffle to a nearby stall and encircle the other star. Usually, O’Neal spoke first, and he’d subtly (and occasionally not so subtly) rip Bryant for selfishness, for childishness. Some of it would be off the record. Most would be on. Then Bryant would be told of O’Neal’s words and subtly (and occasionally not so subtly) respond. It was the most passive-aggressive teammate-to-teammate behavior scribes had witnessed, not unlike two toddlers arguing over a lollipop. O’Neal’s locker and Bryant’s locker were separated by approximately 15 feet. They could have directly uttered the complaints to each other while rolling on deodorant. That, however, would take courage. “It was babyish, and it was really more Shaq,” said Adande. “Shaq would say to us ‘You guys know what’s really going on’ all the time. He didn’t want to come out and say it, so he’d have us do the dirty work. Kobe wasn’t as cryptic. He’d bide his time, then unload.”
Writers were quickly designated “Shaq guy” or “Kobe guy,” based upon perceived allegiances. Ric Bucher, the ESPN The Magazine writer who covered a large amount of Laker basketball, was once in the running to co-author O’Neal’s autobiography. Then he wrote a piece deemed sympathetic to Bryant. “From then on I was a ‘Kobe guy’ to Shaq,” Bucher recalled. “That was it for me with him. I didn’t want any allegiances. But in Shaq’s mind you were with him or you were with that guy.”
Adande was considered “a Shaq guy,” and with good reason. “I tried not to take sides at first,” he said, “but they forced you to. So I was on Shaq’s side, mainly because for that team they were better off when the ball went through him. And Shaq was more accessible and — despite his size — more relatable. I also was closer in age to Shaq, I knew him longer. He allowed me in. Kobe never really did.”
Said the Times’s Bill Plaschke: “Kobe had nobody. He had a bodyguard, but that was it. So I would wait and walk him to his car. Every night when I was there. The same competitiveness that made him great on the court kept people away off the court. He was always snarling. Always biting. And he would see who you were talking to. You had to pick a side — Kobe or Shaq. And I picked Shaq. You would be talking to someone about Kobe and Shaq would be listening. I’ll never forget one time I was talking to Rick Fox about Kobe in the hallway. And Shaq came bursting through the curtain: ‘What are you talking about? What’s going on?’ After the games they would see who you went to first. They were watching after shootarounds to see who you went to. You had to clearly choose.”
Shaq was jealous of Kobe. Kobe wasn’t jealous of Shaq. Kobe just wanted to kick everybody’s ass.
Those who knew both men well found the dynamic fascinating, in that what people thought they were observing wasn’t entirely accurate. Because he was bigger, stronger, more accomplished, more boastful, O’Neal was largely considered the secure veteran dealing with the insecure kid. In reality, O’Neal could never fully get past Bryant’s refusal to embrace him. Everyone loved Shaq. So why didn’t Kobe? He was supposed to come and seek advice — but never did. He was supposed to sing O’Neal’s praises — but never did.
Even worse, Bryant didn’t give two craps what O’Neal said or thought about him. O’Neal could ramble on about Bryant’s flaws, and it felt raw. Bryant’s replies, though, were often accompanied by shrugs and smirks. The body language screamed: Seriously? Who cares what he thinks? — and it drove O’Neal insane. Before every game, the Laker players huddled in the hallway leading to the court, and O’Neal would lead them — in the words of Bucher — “into a bouncing frenzy, bodies ricocheting on each other turning the circle into a mosh pit.” Every man participated, from Fox and Horry to Penberthy and Madsen. But not Bryant. Never. Why? Well, why should he?
Phil Jackson, for his part, kicked back and let it unfold. Though he preached Zen and had his players sit in rooms together as incense burned, the coach was a firm believer in letting conflicts play out organically. He actually believed there was value to Shaq v. Kobe, in that two angry stars oftentimes brought that ferocity to the court. If they were mad in the locker room, wouldn’t they be mad against Portland and Sacramento? Jackson didn’t like the word “manipulation,” but it was manipulation.
The beginning of the end
Although they were anything but friends off the court, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were dominant NBA forces who teamed to lead the Lakers to three straight titles. In 2002-03, however, the wheels began to fall off. Shaq was slowing down a bit. Bryant was tired of his teammate’s laziness and perceived indifference. They were men with similar on-court goals but opposite methodologies. When Los Angeles fell to San Antonio in the 2003 Western Conference semifinals, it was clear an upgrade was in order. Hence, the team added a pair of future Hall of Famers — longtime Sonics point guard Gary Payton, and longer-time Jazz forward Karl Malone. The concept made sense: What’s better than two superstars? Four superstars. But even Payton and Malone couldn’t overcome the decaying partnership of Shaq and Kobe. Who, by 2003-04, absolutely loathed one another.
ON APRIL 11, 2004, the Lakers visited Sacramento for a game that — thanks to recent history — now felt like some sort of blood war.
Over the preceding six weeks, the team had (sort of) managed to regain its footing, at least enough so that a 54-25 record had Jackson’s squad feeling relatively good about itself.
Was everything roses and peaches? Hardly. Gary Payton, the new point guard, butchered the triangle. Bryant continued to fly in and out of Colorado for his hearings, and on the afternoon of March 24 he had the pleasure of sitting for three hours as his accuser (in a closed-door session) testified all about their encounter. The team suspended contract talks with Jackson. O’Neal was sued by a company that claimed he took $63,000 to promote a youth basketball clinic and then failed to attend. Outside of Derek Fisher, the bench was woefully thin. It had been a long, winding, uncomfortable road of raised, lowered, then once again raised expectations. “A joyless ride,” wrote Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times.
Now, however, there was reason for optimism. Karl Malone, the legendary power forward, and O’Neal were back, and the postseason was in sight. Once they dispatched with the Kings, the Lakers could focus on what they were here to do. Namely, capture another NBA championship.
Only nothing for Los Angeles would come that easy.
The Lakers and the Kings tipped off at 3:30 p.m. inside Arco Arena, and fans anticipating a highly competitive afternoon between bitter rivals were broadsided with a harsh dose of reality. Sacramento jumped out to an 8-0 lead, and by the end of the first quarter they were up 31-15. The lopsided score was eye-opening, but what really stood out (especially to the Los Angeles players and coaches) was the play of Bryant, who did …
… absolutely nothing.
This is no exaggeration. A man who loved to shoot the way a horse loves to gallop let loose precisely zero shots in the first quarter. Even when O’Neal was placed on the bench after picking up two quick fouls. Even when Devean George, Slava Medvedenko, and backup forward Bryon Russell combined to shoot 1 for 11 in the first quarter. Why, Bryant didn’t so much as attempt a field goal until there was 6:41 remaining in the half, when his three-point try clanged off the rim. By then the Lakers were trailing 40-23, in a key game tossed into an incinerator thanks to a player who — to cite Plaschke — “didn’t shoot, didn’t penetrate, didn’t create … didn’t care?”
The final score, 102-85, featured a Kobe Bryant statistical line (3-for-13 shooting, 8 points, 4 assists) that didn’t read as appallingly as it truly was. But inside the Laker locker room, enough was enough. The belief among his teammates, as well as the coaching staff, was that Bryant was making a statement to the men in purple and gold who devoted their lives to criticizing his shot selection, his need to take over a game, his desire to be the alpha. Just a few days earlier, Jackson had complained to the media that “Kobe is doing too much again.” Now, by refusing to shoot, Bryant would show them all. It was the ultimate “f— off” to people he deemed unworthy of his presence, and when, in the immediate aftermath, he said the Kings had “doubled me every time I touched the ball,” teammates had to laugh to keep from punching a wall.
“I can’t tell you what he was thinking,” Payton said afterwards — even though he knew exactly what he was thinking.
“I thought he was feeling the team out, which was good,” Jackson said — even though he was merely protecting a player who warranted no such protection.
The only honest take came one day later, when Tim Brown of the Los Angeles Times was standing with a player after practice. Provided a guarantee of anonymity, the Laker told Brown, “I don’t know how we can forgive him.” A second member of the team, also assured his name wouldn’t be used, said that Los Angeles could no longer be certain of Bryant’s mentality. When, on the morning of April 13, Bryant saw Brown’s 838-word front-of-the-sports-section piece, headlined AIR IS HEAVY FOR BRYANT, LAKERS, he lost his mind.
He stormed into the practice facility on Nash Street in El Segundo, a rolled-up Los Angeles Times sports section tucked beneath his arm. He walked from player to player, shoving the article into each man’s face. “Did you say this?!” he screamed.
“Did you say this?!”
“Did you say this?!”
The furor was palpable. So was the awkwardness. Someone had uttered the words. Later, during a team meeting, Bryant continued with the questioning. “Right here and right now!” he said. “I want to know who said this s—!”
Finally, Malone cleared his throat. “Kobe,” he said, “obviously no one said it or no one wants to admit they said it. You’ve just got to let it go.” Bryant was not prepared to let it go. He told Malone to f— off. Malone suggested that perhaps Bryant should f— off. This was not a discussion, but a screaming match with the potential to turn physical. It wasn’t altogether un-reminiscent of the summer 2001 fight between Bryant and O’Neal — the scrappy guard blind to the fact that the man he was agitating could physically destroy him.
At long last, Jackson stepped in. His grasp on the team — once as strong as a vise — had all but vanished. The triangle was a thing of the past. Bryant (who’d recently told John Black, the team’s media relations head, that he didn’t “have long to be in the gold armor”) had one foot out the door and would refuse to speak with the press for the next 11 days. O’Neal wasn’t sure whether he’d be back. Malone would certainly retire at season’s end. Payton was miserable. His backup, Fisher, was frustrated over limited minutes.
The Lakers would finish out the regular season with a pair of victories and — thanks to a rare dose of good fortune — enter the playoffs as the second seed.
They had won 56 games in the ugliest of manners, and by now many of the players just wanted it all to end.
One way or another.
The Los Angeles Lakers completed the 2004 playoffs with a nightmarish five-game Finals loss to the underdog Detroit Pistons. Shortly after the Game 5 loss, Bryant sat across from a teammate and declared, “I ain’t playing with that motherf—er again.”
The motherf—er was Shaquille O’Neal.
Jerry Buss, the franchise owner, had no choice. He desperately wanted to keep Bryant, who — despite being in the midst of a sexual assault trial that had the potential to land him in prison for up to two decades — was arguably the game’s best player. So the Lakers let Phil Jackson walk off into retirement, then traded O’Neal to Miami, where two seasons later he would team up with Dwyane Wade to bring the Heat their first title.
When Kobe Bryant died earlier this year, he did so as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer, as well as a man with five championship rings wrapped around his fingers.