For years, the Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant beef dominated sports headlines. Even though the duo teamed up for four NBA Finals appearances and three titles over their eight seasons together with the Los Angeles Lakers, it was their frosty relationship off the court that captivated many. But a recent revelation from The Diesel casts doubts onto how bad the relationship was.
The partnership ended in 2004 when the Lakers traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat for three players and two draft picks. Shaq got the first laugh when the Heat won a title in 2006, giving him a 4–3 edge in rings. But Bryant ended up with the advantage with back-to-back titles with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010. There was lots of trash talk in both directions along the way, but O’Neal recently revealed the hate was just business.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were unquestionably one of the NBA’s top tandems
In their early years, the Lakers were a good team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant but couldn’t get over the hump in a rugged Western Conference. From 1997–99, the Lakers 148–66, but lost in the playoffs to the eventual conference champion Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998, and the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in 1999.
Enter Phil Jackson.
With the Zen Master at the helm, the Lakers immediately transformed into a dynasty that bridged the 20th and 21st centuries. LA won three straight titles from 2000–02. After a second-round loss to the Spurs in 2003, the Lakers returned to the Finals in 2004. But the star-studded club fell to the Pistons in five games in 2004. With the trade of O’Neal, the party officially ended.
There were indications the feud was real. Dennis Rodman was briefly a Laker in 1999. The Worm reportedly got so frustrated by the bickering between the team’s two young stars that he bailed and took a Vegas vacation.
O’Neal’s latest revelation isn’t quite so shocking, given how the players reconciled later. Maybe it’s because the beef was actually turkey all along.
Shaquille O’Neal says the feud with Kobe Bryant was embellished
Shaquille O’Neal revealed the truth behind the legendary beef with Kobe Bryant during a recent appearance on the Full Send Podcast.
“I perpetuated it out of the locker room because the one thing I understood was marketing. So, ‘I don’t like him, and he don’t like me,’ and everybody talked about us. That’s all I want. It kind of went too far where people kind of believed it. If you believe it, then you think we win three out of four?”
There’s a chance this is Revisionist History 101 on display. Bryant’s tragic death in 2020 makes it impossible for him to refute O’Neal’s statement and makes it advantageous for Shaq to spin it into a happier tale.
But there were other telling moments. When Bryant and O’Neal shared MVP honors at the 2009 NBA All-Star Game, Kobe gave the trophy to his former teammate. Bryant’s intent was for O’Neal to give the award to his young son, Shareef.
In a telling one-on-one interview, Shaq told Kobe it was at the All-Star Game he realized how hard he had been on Bryant through the years. He later said he regrets not staying in LA to finish his career with Bryant.
Shareef O’Neal might be the recipient of Kobe Bryant’s last message
On the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, received a text message from Kobe Bryant. The now-retired NBA legend served as a mentor to O’Neal, now a redshirt junior at LSU (where his father also played). The text was simply a check-in message asking how the youngster was doing.
O’Neal replied but never received a response. Like the rest of us, he learned later that Bryant had died in a helicopter crash later that morning. The elder O’Neal was devastated by Bryant’s death and gave a touching speech at Kobe’s memorial service in LA. Shaq referred to his former teammate as a “little brother.”
We’ll never know the truth about the feud. But it might make it easier to digest by believing Shaquille O’Neal perpetuated the myth of the Kobe Bryant beef for its marketing value.
If nothing else, it’s a much happier Hollywood ending.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.