Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were objectively one of the most fascinating duos in sports history. At any given point of their time together, the pair’s relationship could be portrayed as complicated, brilliant, maddening, endearing and any one of about a thousand other different descriptions.
Bryant’s death in 2020 shook O’Neal hard, though he did later seemingly admit that at one point the pair didn't speak for four years.
This week, O’Neal appeared on The Coaches Network Podcast and offered some additional insight into why he and Bryant were the way they were with one another.
“I was playing with a younger version of myself,” O’Neal said.
“Somebody that had the same mentality. A lot of times guys worry about titles instead of worrying about certain things. We were both about whose team it is, who’s the best player on the team? We had a job to do… [and we] won three championships in a row.”
O’Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships between 2000 and 2003. After failing to four-peat against the Detroit Pistons in 2004, in light of growing tensions between the two over a variety of issues, O’Neal opted to leave L.A. and join the Miami Heat.
Even when the pair’s relationship was at its all-time worst and most toxic, a genuine respect for the other’s abilities and talents was always there.
O’Neal acknowledged this much during his recent interview. He also reiterated that, given the opportunity, he wouldn’t have changed the pair’s history.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.
“People think, ‘oh you didn’t get along’, I know we didn’t get along’ but we respected each other. That’s all you need. When you have respect for each other, nothing else matters… Were we best friends? Nope. Were we best friends on the court? Yup.”
After the pair’s Laker break-up, O’Neal won one additional championship with Miami and Bryant won two in L.A. Both ended up being successful in their own rights.
Still, one of the greatest what-ifs in NBA history is what would have happened had the duo never broken up. Sadly, it’s a question we’ll never have the answer to.