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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Shaq and Kobe Talk About Their Championships, Their Feud and Their Reconciliation

NBA TV's Players Only Monthly Isiah and Magic episode was compelling television about two off court friends/on court rivals. The recent NBA TV's Players Only Monthly episode featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant provided tremendous insight about one of the greatest duos in pro basketball history--two on court partners who, to their own detriment, became off court rivals.

O'Neal and Bryant won three straight championships together (2000-02) with the L.A. Lakers before the Lakers shipped O'Neal to the Miami Heat after the 2003-04 season. O'Neal won another ring in Miami (2006), while the Lakers formed a mini-dynasty built around Bryant, advancing to the NBA Finals three consecutive times (2008-10) and capturing back to back titles (2009-10).

O'Neal and Bryant traded verbal blows (and nearly traded physical blows) during their time together, feuding over a variety of matters great and small. Their relationship began to improve a few years after O'Neal left the Lakers and they have been on good terms with each other for several years now.

O'Neal began the show by reminiscing about the first time he spoke with Bryant after Bryant joined the Lakers. O'Neal said that Bryant told him that he (Bryant) would be the greatest player ever, that he would surpass even Michael Jordan and that he would be the Will Smith of the NBA. Bryant said that he did not remember making those comments but that they all sounded like things he would have declared at that time.

O'Neal and Bryant have markedly different personalities. O'Neal is a playful extrovert, while Bryant is a driven and focused introvert. The two reached a wary mutual understanding that, despite their different exterior ways, they shared a common goal: winning the NBA championship.

For a while, no one could stop the Lakers as O'Neal established himself as the most dominant big man in the league while Bryant emerged as a great two-way player. O'Neal called them the "most dominant one-two punch little/big ever created in the game," in part because they overcame more off court issues than the league's other great duos (which is somewhat circular reasoning, since most of the off court issues were self-created).

While O'Neal focuses on hyperbole, Bryant focuses on tactics first. Bryant is particularly intrigued by matching up against Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in addition to the top teams of the current era. Bryant wondered aloud about how Phil Jackson and his defensive guru Johnny Bach of the 1991 Chicago Bulls--which Bryant stated is when Michael Jordan believes he was at the peak of his powers--would have countered the Lakers, especially the matchup of O'Neal versus Bill Cartwright. O'Neal chuckled that Cartwright would be "barbecue chicken." Bryant did not reach a definitive conclusion about how the 2001 Lakers would have fared against various foes from other eras but he stated that all great duos rightfully believe that they are the best. Bryant noted that the Lakers were masters of controlling "pace and tempo," which is why he likes their chances in a hypothetical matchup against today's run and gun teams. Those teams would have to slow down and guard O'Neal in the post, which means that there would be no long rebounds and no run outs.

No dynasty lasts forever and the Lakers' dynasty began crumbling after 2002, though the team did advance to the 2004 NBA Finals. During the team's decline, O'Neal once infamously justified delaying needed medical treatment by declaring, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time." O'Neal told Bryant that he felt like he could coast in that way without hurting the team too much because he knew that Bryant could get 40 points in a game at any given time. There often seems to be more than a little bit of revisionist history contained within O'Neal's version of events, while Bryant is more direct and honest.

Of course, once Bryant proved that he was more than capable of being the number one option, he was not enthusiastic about reverting back to a second option role. Bryant recalled that after O'Neal returned to the lineup, Coach Phil Jackson wanted Bryant to dial it back and Bryant's incredulous response was "Why?"

In the end, though, Bryant understood the optimal game plan for the Lakers. Bryant revealed that Jackson's trusted assistant coach--Tex Winter--explained to Bryant that the program went a lot deeper than just feeding O'Neal the ball for three quarters before unleashing Bryant as a fourth quarter closer; it was important to feed O'Neal in certain ways in order to get the defense off balance and set up options for Bryant to later exploit.

Throughout the episode, Bryant's tactical acumen was on high display. For instance, Bryant mentioned that during one offseason he played some one on one games versus Reggie Miller. For Bryant, these were not casual encounters but rather an opportunity to scout Miller's tendencies at both ends of the court, information that Bryant exploited in the 2000 Finals when his Lakers defeated Miller's Indiana Pacers.

Bryant stated that he feels that the Lakers' loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals was his fault because he did not teach Malone and Payton how to run "our automatics." Bryant broke down Detroit's strategy during that series: the Pistons pressured the ball full court, forced O'Neal up the lane/off of the low post and disrupted the timing of the Lakers' offense, forcing the Lakers to work against the clock. Some would argue that Detroit's Larry Brown outcoached the Lakers' Phil Jackson during that series. Years ago, in an exclusive interview, Joe Caldwell--who played for Coach Larry Brown in the ABA--had told me much the same things that Bryant said about Detroit's game plan during that series.

In the summer after that Finals loss, O'Neal loudly and publicly demanded during a preseason game that Lakers' owner Jerry Buss "Pay me." Buss responded by dealing O'Neal to the Miami Heat, wisely betting that short-term suffering during the rebuilding process would be rewarded by championships won with Bryant at the helm.
 
O'Neal and Bryant talked about their championship ring totals and how Bryant ultimately finished with one more than O'Neal. Bryant stated that he knew that O'Neal would win at least one ring in Miami and Bryant said that he even hoped for that, because he could use it as motivation to win two or three more of his own so that he would end up on top in their personal rivalry. Bryant noted that he never felt like a sidekick during the Lakers' "three-peat" and that such a label is unfair in any case: Michael Jordan never even won a playoff series without Scottie Pippen, nor did Magic Johnson win a single NBA title without having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a teammate.

Thus, the 2010 title that vaulted Bryant ahead of O'Neal was perhaps the most meaningful one for Bryant, particularly since at came at the hand of the hated (and stacked) Boston Celtics while Bryant was battling an assortment of injuries (including a broken finger on his shooting hand and ankle bone spurs that required multiple injections) that would have sidelined a lesser player/competitor.

O'Neal admitted, "I tore my house up" after Bryant won his fifth championship ring.

By that time, though, the two former teammates had already begun their rapprochement, a process hastened by the 2009 NBA All-Star Game. Bryant and O'Neal were teammates for the first time in five years and they shared All-Star Game MVP honors while leading the West to victory. Bryant told O'Neal to take the MVP trophy home and give it to his son, a gesture that touched O'Neal deeply. O'Neal told Bryant during the episode, "I realized, ‘I think I may have messed something up׳...when you did that and you didn't have to do that...I said to myself, 'Luckily, I won three out of four with this guy but I was an a—hole to this guy.' So, I owe you an apology and I am going to give you an apology but we ain't going to be doing all that crying like Magic and Isiah."
 
The O'Neal-Bryant feud had featured a lot of nonsense--most of it emanating from O'Neal (as his apology tacitly concedes) and fueled by media members who liked the gregarious O'Neal more than they liked Bryant. The feud probably reached the height--or depth--of foolishness with O'Neal's anti-Bryant diss rap. O'Neal called that whole situation the beginning of the "snitcher-net" and said that he was being silly in an "underground comedy club," with no idea that his comments would receive national attention. Bryant laughed off the incident at the time and he laughed it off again during this reunion, though he admitted that in the moment he used it as further motivation. 

O'Neal and Bryant did not grow up together prior to joining the NBA like Isiah and Magic did, nor did they ever have the kind of off court bond that Isiah and Magic share. Nevertheless, they coexisted together well enough and long enough to establish a legacy that few duos in league history can match--and they both have matured enough to facilitate personal reconciliation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:07 AM

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