As championship teams go, few were as acrimonious as the early-oughts Los Angeles Lakers. Sure, the Dallas Cowboys were wilder & less-disciplined, but never was there such a chasm of ill will between the team’s top two players as there was between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
While Phil Jackson’s book did a fine job of presenting the feud from his angle, we now have Madmen’s Ball: The Continuing Saga of Kobe, Phil and the Los Angeles Lakers, a new book about the 2003-2004 season, Shaq’s last in LA. According to an excerpt printed in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, not only was it a fatal PR disaster for the dynasty, everyone knew it was coming:
Every day, Black [John Black, Lakers publicist] announced Bryant would only take basketball questions, but it was the reporters’ job to ask other questions, and Bryant often answered them. When a CBS producer asked Bryant about that day’s events in court, Black lifted her credentials on the spot. After Newsweek’s Allison Samuels wrote a tough cover piece, she couldn’t even get credentials.
For his part, Jackson regarded this as the usual hysteria, like that which he’d turned to his own advantage in Chicago. He jauntily told the press he would show players “how to dodge questions that you guys present,” and said Bryant’s situation might actually be a “boon” that brought them together.
Yes, that coming together worked perfectly. So perfectly that even now, five years later, we’ve still got Shaq conducting improptu taste tests of his own posterior towards Kobe. To be fair to Kobe, though, O’Neal knew how to push Kobe’s buttons, and he did it a lot:
Four days later, O’Neal, sitting out an exhibition in San Diego, said he was doing it because “I want to be right for Derek [Fisher], Karl [Malone], and Gary [Payton].” In case anyone had missed the significance of what he’d said, Shaq repeated the list of players he wanted to be right for, which didn’t, of course, include Bryant.
Later, O’Neal threw more gasoline on the fire:
“Just ask Karl and Gary why they came here. One person. Not two. One. Period. So, he’s right, I’m not telling him how to play his position. I’m telling him how to play team ball…. He doesn’t need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [things have] to be done right. If you don’t like it, then you can opt out next year. If it’s going to be my team, I’ll voice my opinion. If he don’t like it, he can opt out…. I ain’t going nowhere.”
Eventually, of course, Shaq was the one who went somewhere, not Kobe, and O’Neal’s got a ring to show for it, while Kobe’s proctologist is still cleaning out parts of Paul Pierce’s left Reebok. It’s not exactly a tragedy, as both players are still balling at a high level and nobody’s life is exactly ruined or anything, but imagine if both guys could have just gotten along with each other. How many more titles would Los Angeles have won? Three? Four? More?