Although they had wildly different personalities, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal won back-to-back-to-back NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. One reason the duo won despite these differences, according to teammate and eventual Lakers head coach Byron Scott, is because Bryant had similar leadership skills to Michael Jordan while Shaq was able to channel the great Magic Johnson.
Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson: Leadership styles
There are no more synonymous names with the NBA than Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Magic was the man of the 1980s. He paired with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and coach Pat Riley on the LA Lakers. Together, they created “Showtime” and won five NBA titles, thwarting the great Larry Bird on multiple occasions.
A decade later, Michael Jordan took the league by storm. Together with Scottie Pippen and coach Phil Jackson on the Chicago Bulls, Jordan won six NBA championships in two separate three-peats.
Johnson did his winning with a megawatt smile that lit up every room he walked in, including the Forum locker room. He was a beacon of positivity, which worked perfectly to offset Abdul-Jabbar’s perma-scowl and Riley’s manic intensity.
Jordan, on the other hand, was a taskmaster. He had to be to get the best out of the painfully quiet Pippen, average talents like John Paxton and Steve Kerr, and difficult personalities like Dennis Rodman.
For their respective teams, Magic’s carrot and Jordan’s stick were exactly what their teams needed.
What would happen another decade later, though, when the two biggest (and most divergent) personalities in the NBA were not only in the league at the same time but on the same team?
Byron Scott says Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were similar to Jordan and Magic
On Jackie MacMullan’s Icons Club podcast, the longtime NBA insider dives deep into the agony and the ecstasy of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant playing together on the LA Lakers from 1996 to 2004.
MacMullan explains that the 7-foot-1 giant and the teenage basketball prodigy couldn’t possibly be more different. “Shaq was gregarious, outgoing, determined to sample all of life’s pleasures,” MacMullan explains. “Kobe was pensive, serious, obsessive about his basketball preparation.”
Byron Scott played with Magic Johnson in the mid-to-late 1980s and against Michael Jordan with the Indiana Pacers in the mid-1990s. Scott would later coach the Lakers from 2014 to 2016. For his last NBA season as a player, in 1996-97, he returned to LA and played with Shaq and Kobe.
Scott told MacMullan how, while the two didn’t always get along, they both brought tried and tested NBA leadership styles to the table:
When I compare Kobe and Shaq’s leadership skills, I look at Kobe as like MJ, Michael Jordan. He was that tough leader, jumping on his teammates, calling them out, cussing them out, beating them up in practice. Shaq was like Magic [in his] leadership role. Because Magic was the guy that was always encouraging — ‘Come on, B! You got this!’ — He was always uplifting his teammates.Byron Scott on Kobe and Shaq
It was the yin and the yang of leadership. These styles had worked to great effect on different teams, but Kobe and Shaq on the Lakers showed how it could work in the same locker room.
However, this balance didn’t come together on its own. To harness the power of yin and yang, there was no one better than the “Zen Master” himself, Phil Jackson.
Phil Jackson helped bring it all together
Phil Jackson overlapped with Magic Johnson for one season in the NBA. But from his time with the New York Knicks in the 1970s, Jackson knew all about how to navigate diverse personalities.
On the way to two NBA championships, Jackson played with some of the biggest characters in NBA history. This includes Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, and Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
After coaching in Puerto Rico and the CBA with the Albany Patroons, Jackson got an assistant job with the Chicago Bulls. When the franchise fired head coach Doug Collins in 1989, the former Knick took over as head coach.
Jackson was the one who managed Michael Jordan and company to six titles, and when the LA Lakers needed someone to manage the combustible Kobe and Shaq dynamic, the Buss family called Phil.
Under Jackson, Shaq and Kobe won three titles in a row during his first three seasons. In Jackson’s other two seasons, they lost in the Western Conference semifinals and the NBA Finals (to the San Antonio Spurs).
With his unimpeachable resume and laid-back, philosophical style, Jackson could uniquely navigate Kobe and Shaq. He harnessed Bryant’s competitiveness and never let it get fully out of control. Jackson also knew exactly when and how to challenge the “Diesel” to get the best out of him.
Kobe might be Jordan, and Shaq might be Magic, but without Phil Jackson, neither one would have nearly as many championships as they do.