Kobe Talking About Shaq, Shaq Talking About Kobe--and Phil Jackson Talking About BothOne of the most obvious subplots for this year's All-Star Game concerns the reunion for a day of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant with Shaquille O'Neal. For quite some time, O'Neal delighted in taking veiled--and not so veiled--public potshots at his former coach and his former teammate but now every time O'Neal talks about Jackson and Bryant it sounds like a lovefest has broken out. During Friday's All-Star media availability, one reporter even asked Coach Jackson if O'Neal has gotten sentimental in his old (in basketball terms) age and Jackson replied, "I think that he thinks sentimentally about the game and I think that you do that after you've been in the game (for so many years). After you've been in that many All-Star games you start looking back at how much this business has changed in your span of time and you become nostalgic. He should be allowed that."
As for the possibility of O'Neal finishing his career as a Laker, Jackson compared O'Neal to the older version of Robert Parish who played a limited role on a Chicago championship team that Jackson coached (though I'm not sure that O'Neal would consider that comparison to be much of a compliment), concluding, "We always say these old crocodiles--these alligators--who patrol the lane have a long lifespan in our game and it would be great to see him back some day."
Asked if O'Neal is engaging in "revisionist history" with his recent comments praising Bryant and saying that their rivalry was just a shrewd marketing plan, Jackson offered a thoughtful reply: "We had to have a one minded idea to win championships and so everybody is able to put aside individual hopes or aspirations (for) the greater good of the whole. These guys were able to do that and bond in so doing, so those sentiments (expressed by O'Neal) are not false. There are different feelings that come in between sometimes, but the bond that they created at one particular point in time is still there and still renewable. That's what he is talking about, sharing the ball, sharing the defense, sharing the space and time that they each gave each other. So I'm good with that."
Jackson said that the one quality that stands out most about O'Neal is "his sense of humor. He could act like a big clown at times. He's got a great sense of humor and he can make everybody pretty lively at times with his sense of humor."
Naturally, everyone wants to know how long Bryant and O'Neal will be on the court together but Jackson--the man in charge of making that determination--coyly refused to reveal his cards about how he will distribute the minutes: "I can't tell you that. The game has its own element." All he would concede is, "You try to use all of the talent on a team and those are certainly two talented players who can play together. They've done it before." He expects that at first they will "overdo it" in terms of "trying to help each other out too much" but that ultimately they will work well together.
In a recent interview with the Sporting News, O'Neal was asked to talk about the best teammates he has ever had and he replied, "Most ferocious was Kobe. Fiercest, most competitive, it was Kobe. D Wade is second after that." During the media availability Bryant returned the compliment when asked his favorite memory of playing with O'Neal: "We have a lot of similarities in terms of that I am very intense all of the time and--while he is a goofball who likes to have fun--when that light comes on he is a beast and that is the most fun that I had with him, seeing that switch come on. When that light came on he was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game. That is what he and I shared." No one asked the natural followup, so I dived in, fully realizing that Bryant would not likely offer a completely candid answer to a difficult and perhaps painful question: "You talked about the difference betwen Shaq's intensity in practice and in games. How much did it bother you that the guy who would want to break someone's face during games did not show that intensity during practice?"
When Bryant answered "Not at all" I think that is the only time that he has lied to me/been in denial about his own true feelings. I don't for one second believe that O'Neal's casual attitude toward practice did not bother Bryant; there is every indication that this infuriated Bryant. That said, perhaps it is wise for Bryant to not publicly delve back into that subject again.
O'Neal can veer from slamming Bryant to praising him as the best player in the game and Jackson can wax eloquently about the bond that O'Neal and Bryant share but I think that Bryant spoke the larger truth in just a few words when he said, "I'm not revisiting that. It wasn't a fun time for me." Bryant, though he was young, impetuous and flawed in some ways--as we all are--was focused on winning right from the start, while O'Neal always wanted to be the life of the party. O'Neal could be extremely focused and dominating when he chose to be but I suspect that this frustrated Bryant even more, because he better than just about anyone could sense what kind of player O'Neal was really capable of being. Bryant did say, "We have a great relationship now and that is the most important thing" but there is no way to go back and win those titles that the Lakers likely would have captured if O'Neal had consistently demonstrated a Bryant-like focus on the task at hand.
Historically, the bottom line will always be that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three titles together but there will always be speculation about how much more that duo could have achieved. Asked if he ever wonders how many more championships he could have won with O'Neal, Bryant said, "No" but when pressed about the issue he replied simply, "Several more." For someone who is as competitive as Bryant, you know that it has to bother him that O'Neal's casual attitude toward conditioning/staying healthy derailed their partnership so soon.
***Speaking of staying healthy, I asked Bryant how he has adjusted his shooting stroke to compensate for his recent finger injury and if having to make a similar adjustment around this time last year helped him this time. He answered, "This one is OK. I've actually adjusted much better with this one than I did with the pinkie. It feels fine and my stroke feels as normal as it did before I got hurt." He added that suffering through last year's injury "gave me confidence that I can play through it because I've done it before. In that sense, I wasn't nervous or skeptical about being able to get through it."
***Bryant said that the event he is most looking forward to this weekend is the HORSE contest, so I asked him if he would like to participate in it at some point. He scrunched up his face and considered that question for a moment before saying, "I don't know. I don't know. We'll have to see," so I asked him why he is so hesitant and he explained, "Because they've got all these rules and all these things that they put into the games. I just want to play HORSE like in the old McDonald's commercial (featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird)."
***While Bryant is still in his MVP-level prime and O'Neal is already well into his declining years--though still a formidable player--Jackson's first great player, Michael Jordan, just officially became a Hall of Fame Finalist. I asked Jackson to reflect on what that means to him personally, since he worked alongside Jordan from very early in Jordan's NBA career. Jackson said, "I was in an audience this morning when a young man of probably 25 talked about growing up watching Michael Jordan and the awe that he inspired in NBA basketball amongst kids. There was a Bird-Magic era and that was a great rivalry and it was wonderful to watch those two play against each other but Michael Jordan was someone you could not take your eyes off of when he played the game. It was just a phenomenon to come watch somebody with that kind of ability to be able to do what he did on the court. We've had a lot of players who had talent--athletic talent--but they've not been able to do the things that he was able to do. I think he has been perhaps the one most significant person in professional basketball in the world. He's a Pele in that sense, so this is a great honor for basketball to have him in the Hall of Fame."
posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM