When Kobe Bryant got ring number five, he couldn’t hide his glee at having more rings than his rival Shaquille O’Neal — he talked about it in his press conference minutes after the game ended.
Now, on the day the Lakers will retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey, Kobe told Marc Spears of Yahoo that he likes to remind the big man who has more hardware.
“I always remind him every time I see him,” Bryant, who’s won five championships with the Lakers, told Yahoo! Sports. “I saw him after the All-Star Game and said, ‘How you doing, ‘Four’ ?’ He said, ‘Oh, you [expletive].’ [Our relationship is] really good now. We have such a mutual respect for each other.”
It wasn’t that way for a long time.
Kobe was a budding superstar with a massive ego and chip on his shoulder. Shaq was the most dominant player in the NBA, bar none. Together they formed a powerhouse combo, but like Los Angeles itself it was always living on a fault line and an earthquake to knock it all down was just a matter of when, not if. Phil Jackson sided with Shaq because he had to — Shaq had the role-playing veterans on his side, he had the locker room.
Kobe took a lot of blame in some quarters for forcing the breakup of that team, but if Shaq had the free agency hammer he would have used it, too. Kobe had it, Jerry Buss had to choose and made the only logical call — the player seven years younger, entering his prime with a crazy-strong work ethic. It wasn’t really much of a choice, even if at the time a lot of Lakers fans didn’t get that (trust me, I had a Lakers blog back then, plenty thought the Buss family made the wrong call).
“It was inevitable,” Bryant said. “You can’t expect Michael [Jordan] to play with Wilt [Chamberlain] for his entire career. That’s just not going to work. I had too much talent and too much to showcase. And then there was a challenge issued by him about me not being able to win without him. That’s a challenge I couldn’t pass.
“But ultimately during those years I sacrificed a lot, numbers-wise, to play with him. The thing that always bothered me was people said, ‘Well, Kobe’s selfish.’ I’m not selfish. If I was selfish, I would have left. I gave up a lot to play with him.”
Time heals most wounds, and it did these as well. Kobe and Shaq are good now, there’s a respect as equals that was not there back in the day. Shaq’s ego wouldn’t let the Lakers become Kobe’s team, but he went to Miami where he did cede that to Dwyane Wade to win a ring. Shaq grew up, too.
Now they are all good. But that doesn’t mean the ribbing doesn’t stop.