Twenty years later, the mythology of the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers still draws us in.
They were feuding, they were bigger-than-life celebrities, they were dominant, they had Phil Jackson using all of his Zen and all of his wizardry to keep the gears from grinding. And they had rings — three of them. It all ended in a spectacular downfall in the 2004 season, when a Lakers’ “superteam” formed by adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton was supposed to have a cakewalk to ring number four, but instead flamed out spectacularly in the face of a legendary Pistons’ defense in the Finals.
Jeff Pearlman, author of the book “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (now available wherever books are sold), joined the NBC ProBasketballTalk Podcast and told a great story about the 2004 team and how there was no way, no magic that could have kept that roster together any longer.
“ was a weird season altogether. I mean, Kobe is flying back and forth to Eagle Colorado, Shaq wants his contract renegotiated, Phil Jackson doesn’t know if he’s coming back or not and he’s dating the daughter of the owner. They bring in Karl Malone and Gary Payton to form this so-called superteam, but Payton is a terrible fit [in the triangle offense] and Malone gets hurt.
“And Kobe was planning on leaving for the Clippers. He made it clear I’m not coming back if Shaq is back. There is no way I’m coming back if Shaq is back. And Jerry Buss had to make a decision. He could have kept Shaq and Phil, I think Phil would have come back, or he could have kept Kobe, but I don’t think you could have kept all three.
“Every now and again someone will say, ‘What would have happened if they all stayed?’ And I said they couldn’t have all stayed. It wasn’t going to happen. Kobe wasn’t playing with Shaquille O’Neal anymore.
“Kareem Rush told me after the Lakers lost to the Pistons in Game 5 [of the Finals] and that series ended, they had a team function. Kareem Rush was Kobe’s backup, and he’s sitting there at this restaurant, and Kobe walks in and says, ‘I’m never playing with that MFer again,’ talking about Shaq. So when Kobe re-signs, he was asked at a press conference did Shaq leaving had anything to do with you being here, he said ‘No, not at all’ and, I’m not speaking ill of the dead to say it wasn’t true. He was not coming back, he was going to be a Clipper.
“And for Jerry Buss, the idea of having this guy you developed from age 18 to be the face of your franchise playing in your building in the other team’s uniform was unthinkable and unbearable. Whatever you think of Kobe, whatever you think of Shaq, you can’t argue he made a wise decision.”
You can read many more stories like that in Pearlman’s book, which is a page-turner any NBA can’t put down (and would make a great Christmas gift). You can also get more stories about that legendary Laker team by listening to the podcast below, or check it out via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, or wherever you download your podcasts.