Twenty years ago Lakers fans would have never imagined it, but today, Shaquille O’Neal really misses his former teammate and friend Kobe Bryant. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show,” the NBA Hall of Famer told the late-night talk show host about the first time he and Bryant met before they both joined the Los Angeles Lakers, and how months after his death, O’Neal desperately wishes he could pick up the phone and “shoot the breeze” with his former teammate.
The first time Shaquille O’Neal met Kobe Bryant
Shaquille O’Neal began his NBA career in the 1992 season. Kobe Bryant started four years later in 1996. The first time the pair met occurred in Orlando when O’Neal played for the Magic. O’Neal said he was reminded of that first-time meeting in Florida when the rookie approached him at the start of the 1996 season.
“He and his family came in the locker room. He asked Penny (Hardaway) for an autograph, and he blew him off. He came over to me, and I was really nice to him,” O’Neal described to Fallon. “He came over and told me all this his rookie season and said, ‘Do you remember me? I came in the locker room.’ ‘Oh yeah. That was you,'” O’Neal said with a smile.
It was the beginning of an eight-year journey together that included more than its shares of ups and downs, including three NBA championships from 1999 to 2002.
O’Neal discusses his sometimes rocky relationship with Bryant
Shaquille O’Neal told Fallon while he and Kobe Bryant had their differences, he knew from the very beginning what kind of competitor he was and he knew it would be advantageous to have him as a teammate.
“What I realized and loved about him early on was he wanted the spot. He wanted to be the best. No matter what you may hear or what you may see, it was all in the interest of winning. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. I always respected the kid. He always respected me.”
O’Neal said the successful partnership with Bryant was unique, but he knows they couldn’t have done it without help from their teammates.
“Kobe and myself, we could have probably got one or two championships on our own. If it wasn’t for Brian Shaw, Rick Fox, Big Shot Bob (Robert Horry), the guys that I call the others, I definitely wouldn’t have had four.”
Shaquille O’Neal wishes he could call Kobe Bryant today
Shaquille O’Neal got emotional when describing the death of Kobe, and his sister, who died in late 2019. He said he encourages people to pick up the phone, call those family members and friends, and tell them that you miss them or love them. O’Neal said when he thinks about Bryant now he wishes he could pick up the phone and text him or call him.
“I would love to call him now and say I’m going to post a picture of us winning a championship 20 years ago. And I can’t do that anymore. I wish I could say hi or, you missed me, I was wide open,” O’Neal joked. “How come you never taught me how to shoot free throws? Or, hey you’ve got five, I got four. Should I come back and play with LeBron? Just shoot the breeze.”
At this time when most people remain inside their homes because of the pandemic, while there are protests of racial injustice happening in cities across the nation, O’Neal is doing what many are doing—reflecting and taking self-inventory. He knows he can’t change the past, but he can cherish those times—good and bad—and use them as building blocks for a better tomorrow.