Opposites that didn’t attract: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had to be separated so that they could shine

Tijana Radeska
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Photo Credit : Keith Allison -CC BY-SA 2.0

A never-ending quarrel, a feud or just a farce between two “adopted” Lakers sons, one thing is for certain.  Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant didn’t like each other. First of all, their personalities were opposite–Shaq was more into his teammates, friendlier, and known for his good-humored personality, while Kobe was more of an introvert, business-like and ambitious, described as arrogant and selfish by some teammates. And second, because they were both alpha players on the court and, as the story goes, two roosters don’t share one coop.

Although Shaq and Kobe managed to bring the Lakers three championships and four NBA Finals appearances between 1999 and 2004, their hostile relationship culminated in Shaq being traded to Miami Heat in 2004. That year, Kobe faced criminal charges of sexual assault and was in and out of courtroom throughout the 2003-04 season. During one of the game evenings, Shaq commented, “The full team is here” although his antagonist was at training camp in Hawaii. In the opposite ring, Kobe said that it would have been better for the team if Shaq stopped “coming to camp fat and out of shape.”

Kobe Bryant of Los Angeles Lakers Author: Keith Allison CC BY-SA 2.0

It was a sort of reality TV show for the basketball fans, and although said as a joke, it was called “Lakers vs. Lakers” by David Stern, then-NBA commissioner. The verbal accusations continued. Kobe was in a quite unenviable position as he was also recovering from a knee injury and he had his court hearings for which he sometimes had flights to Colorado during the day and was back for the game in the evening. In the meantime, the charges against him were dropped, but Shaq still criticized him for playing while he was supposed to dedicate himself to a full recovery. Bryant answered that he knew how to play guard and that Shaq should have focused on playing in the post.

Shaquille O’Neal Author: Steve Lipofsky CC BY 3.0

When one wants to track back their mutual hostility they will get back to 1996, when the 18-year-old Kobe Bryant was brought into the Lakers straight from high school. Although he joined the team later that same year, Shaq was six years older, a more experienced, free agent All-Star center who didn’t have time to wait for the young aspiring Kobe to grow up on the court.

O’Neal at the White House greeting US President George W. Bush with his fellow Lakers

Even though Kobe was a reserve on the team, the Lakers don’t waste their money on just any school boy. He was always pushed and encouraged to improve as a team player, so as soon as 1997 the team assigned him to play in the NBA Summer League. The next year he was voted as a starter in the All-Star Game. His career was moving too fast for Shaq, who was said to be envious of Kobe’s jersey sales. Then he started the rumor that Kobe was playing selfish basketball.

It turned into mocking Kobe’s turnovers during the All-Star Game introductions, while Shaq claimed this was just friendly teasing between the two. Despite the growing jealousy and hostility between the two players, the Lakers won the first of three consecutive NBA championships. During the season 2000-01, Shaq was out of shape, which gave Kobe a reason to mock him back. But in fact, Kobe was more worried about the progress of the team because his own progress depended on it.

O’Neal holding the championship ball when the NBA Champion Heat visited the White House

Shaq’s and Kobe’s feud was marketing for the media. And while the two stars were actively followed as if they were the only players, nobody really cared what their hostility and the media’s attention to it did to the rest of the team. In fact, there is much analysis of what happened and how it happened, but the truth is whether it was just marketing or not, both players cared only for themselves, their careers, and both wanted to be number one in the sport.

Read another story from us: The “fire and ice” rivalry between Borg and McEnroe led to tennis’s greatest matches

So, they never became friends, and the story ended in 2004 when Shaq was traded to the Heat while Kobe signed a seven-year, $136 million contract with the Lakers to be the face of the franchise. They both went on having successful careers, although many believe that they never scored as well as they did while they played together on the Lakers. To this day, both Shaq and Kobe are ranked among the all-time basketball scoring lists.