During their time together as members of the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant proved to be a dynamic duo. Shaq, when he was at his best, could dominate the interior like no other; Kobe, as we all know, could usually will his team to victory single-handedly. While those combined skill sets helped the two stars win three championships together, things weren’t always happy behind the scenes.
Although the tension between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant has been well documented, it seems like things came to a head in 2003. After a particularly scathing interview, the Big Aristotle apparently threatened to “murder” his teammate.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were an unstoppable pairing with the Lakers
These days, it seems like it’s impossible to win an NBA championship without having multiple superstars on the roster. The LA Lakers, however, were ahead of the curve in the 1990s when they had both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the roster.
While Shaq started out on his own, making a name for himself with the Orlando Magic, he joined the LA Lakers in 1996; earlier that year, the team had selected Kobe Bryant as the 13th-overall draft pick. Although the two men seemed like something of an odd couple and had some initial clashes, things would eventually turn the corner.
Once Phil Jackson arrived in Hollywood and installed the triangle offense, the Lakers truly hit their stride. With Shaq and Kobe looking like an unstoppable duo, the club rattled off three straight championships from 2000 through 2002. Despite the cliches, though, winning did not solve everything.
A scathing public criticism leads to a behind-the-scenes murder threat
While Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant didn’t always see eye-to-eye, they managed to hold things together and have a functional professional relationship. In 2003, though, things started to break down even further.
With Bryant recovering from a knee injury, O’Neal publicly suggested that the guard pass the ball more; that comment kicked off a war of words, with the two stars trading barbs over who was the Lakers’ top dog. Eventually, Kobe took things to the next level.
In an interview with ESPN’s Jim Gray, Bryant criticized O’Neal’s physical condition and leadership.
“But this is his team, so it’s time for him to act like it. That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court,” Kobe said. “It also means no more blaming others for our team’s failure or blaming staff members for not overdramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning. Also, ‘my team’ doesn’t mean only when we win; it means carrying the burden of defeat just as gracefully as you carry a championship trophy.”
Understandably, the big man didn’t appreciate those remarks.
“Mostly it was Shaq and Kobe didn’t like each other, but it didn’t affect them on the court,” then-Lakers vice-president of public relations Jim Black told Bleacher Report in 2015. “They would say something about the other, on or off the record, but it didn’t become confrontational more than two or three times over the eight years. When Kobe gave the statement to Jim Gray where he went off calling Shaq fat and lazy, that was one of the times. There was one really bad one, early on. Brian Shaw had to pull them apart. Shaq threatened to murder Kobe.”
Shaquille O’Neal still holds Kobe Bryant in high regard, though
Eventually, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t work together anymore; the big man left Hollywood for Miami, and Kobe kept shinning in California. Despite their differences, though, the two stars formed quite a bond during their time together.
“Our names will be attached together for what we did,” O’Neal explained on TNT after Bryant’s tragic 2020 death. “People always ask about our relationship, and I tell them it’s just like me and Charles [Barkley]. You got two strong-minded people that are going to get it done that way. You’re going to say certain things, [but] the respect will never be lost. When it comes to being inside the lines and winning, that’s what me and him did.”
In sports, there are plenty of cliches about teammates becoming like family. For Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, though, those platitudes ring true; in a locker room—like at the dinner table—you can (sometimes) threaten to kill someone without completely ruining a relationship.