They first hooked up in 1996, Shaquille O’Neal joining the Lakers as a free agent and Kobe Bryant coming over in a draft-day trade engineered by the great Jerry West. They became one of the best duos, which in many ways was the impetus for both O’Neal and Bryant to be honored by the Lakers on the highest order.
On Thursday, Bryant will have his statue unveiled at Crypto.com Arena.
O’Neal’s statue was unveiled outside the Lakers’ arena in 2017. Bryant will join O’Neal, West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor and Chick Hearn in the pantheon of Lakers greats immortalized in bronze.
At no time, O’Neal said, did he think he would get a statue, and he and Bryant never talked about being honored in such a way. O’Neal said they believed maybe, if they won enough championships, they would get their jerseys retired.
“No. I didn’t even think I would get one and the reason why was in order to be a Lakers legend, you have to be consistently great,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And me and Kob knew we weren’t Lakers great in the beginning. When I came there, I was really good and he was just good. And then we both eventually became pretty good. Then when Phil [Jackson] came [in as coach in 1999,] that’s when s— started to change. Then we won one, two and three championships and then my statue happened. Then y’all [in the media] jumped on him, ‘Oh, you can’t win without “Diesel”,’ and that drove him crazy and he got two more championships. And now Kobe has his statue.”
Bryant’s relentlessness drove him to win two of his five championships, in 2009 and 2010, after O’Neal left L.A. Together they won three in a row from 2000 to 2002.
Like everyone else, O’Neal wishes Bryant was here to share in the celebration. Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.
O’Neal considers getting his statue a crowning achievement. He thinks Bryant would have felt the same.
“It would mean a lot,” O’Neal said. “He was a go-getter. Whatever he put his mind to do, he was going to do it, no matter who liked it, no matter who he pissed off. He was just going to go do it.”
O’Neal had seen more than enough of Bryant to know he was obsessed with being great. But in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers, O’Neal saw Bryant at his best.
O’Neal had fouled out of the game, leaving the Lakers vulnerable and staring at a potential 2-2 tie in the best-of-seven series.
But Bryant was not going to let that happen, his level of play reaching new heights, his physical toughness and determination on display.
Bryant had missed Game 3 with a sprained left ankle that he suffered early in Game 2. He had said his ankle was “throbbing,” but that was not going to stop him.
With O’Neal on the bench and the Lakers playing in overtime, Bryant made two jumpers and capped his courageous performance with a reverse-layup putback with 5.9 seconds left. The Lakers won to take a 3-1 lead en route to the dynamic duo’s first title.
“He sprained his ankle and I carried him out on my back and then I fouled out and then he looked over and was like, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and then took over the game,” O’Neal said. “You knew that getting to the Finals that he had arrived. But I knew that after that game that we definitely were going to win the championship. It was like, ‘Oh, s—, it is over now. They ain’t got no answer for me and they already couldn’t stop him.’ But he just showed you, ‘There ain’t nothing y’all can do from now on that’s going to even give y’all a chance to win.’”
O’Neal and Bryant had their differences, the bickering finally leading to O’Neal getting traded to the Miami Heat in 2004.
Even so, O’Neal talks with reverence about their time playing together.
“We were the best little-to-big duo of all time,” O’Neal said. “Not the best duo because you got Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen.] But the best guard-to-big-man duo ever created. And that includes Magic and Kareem.
“The only reason why was because all the outside odds were supposed to be stacked against us. ‘Shaq hates Kobe! Kobe hates Shaq!’ … But like I said, we were the most enigmatic, controversial 1-2 punch ever created. The stories that were told, ‘These [dudes] are at each other.’ But we got three [championships] out of four, which is 75%. If we would have gotten one out of four, the story would have been a ‘what if,’ and we’d still be talking about it today. But, hey, if I had it all over to do again, I wouldn’t do nothing different.”
“Because the ultimate goal is to get that championship. We got three in a row. In a row. Could have gotten that fourth, but it didn’t go like that. Things had to change and the business of basketball kicked in and he was able to bring Phil back and Kobe got two more.”