x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The greatness of Shaq and Kobe

Will Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant be remembered for what they did together or what the DID NOT do together?

Last Friday the Phoenix Suns centre Shaquille O'Neal scored 45 points against the Toronto Raptors. He followed that up with 33 to lead his Suns to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. In that same game his old teammate, Kobe Bryant, had 49 points. It got me to thinking about these two. Will O'Neal and Bryant be remembered for what they did together or what the DID NOT do together?

Shaq and Kobe joined the Lakers in 1996. Shaq was 24, while Kobe was just a rookie at 18. It took a few years, Shaq was already a dominant centre when he came to LA, but Kobe did not develop into a top-flight player until the 1999-2000 season. When that happened, he and Shaq became the premier inside-outside tandem in the NBA and they also won their first NBA title over the Indiana Pacers. Over next two seasons, Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers toyed with the rest of the league. They added two more championships over the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets and they made it look easy. During that run Charles Barkley said that unless one of them got injured, there was no way to stop them from more titles.

After their third and final title together in 2002, the Los Angeles media started with the topic: was this Shaq's team or Kobe's team. Kobe was no longer the up-and-comer helping Shaquille. For the first time in seven seasons together, Kobe was the Lakers's leading scorer and was the second leading scorer in the league. At the end of tight games it was Kobe taking the final shot, not Shaq. The Lakers were still a strong team, but they failed to reach the NBA Finals in 2003 and in their final year together, Kobe and Shaq lost in the 2004 NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons.

When you are winning, everything looks pretty from the outside. Even when they were winning three straight titles, Shaq and Kobe were never close off the court. This is fine when things are going well, but when the run of titles stopped, the differences between these two megastars came to light. During the summer of 2004 fans chose sides. You were either on the side who thought the Lakers should keep Bryant or the side who wanted to stay loyal to O'Neal.

There were lots of fans that wanted to keep both, but as the summer went along, it appeared that ship had sailed. Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat in July 2004 for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round pick. The season that followed was a disaster in Los Angeles. The Lakers finished 34-48 and missed the play-offs. Some fans blamed Kobe for orchestrating the Shaq trade. Some blamed Shaq and said he wanted out. Shaq did not suffer post-Kobe, he and the Heat made the play-offs in the season that followed the trade and the following season Shaq won another title along with another young guard, Dwayne Wade. Kobe is still looking for a post-Shaq ring.

Since Shaq and Kobe broke up, much has been made about of how well they do or do not get along. Their on-court match-ups were must- watch TV. On Feb 15 of this year Shaq and Kobe teamed up for the Western Conference team in the NBA All-Star game and they shared the MVP award. The game was a reminder of what was and what might have been. Shaq likes to boast that he and Kobe were the greatest big-man/little-man combination in NBA history. It is hard to argue with him. They were the greatest combo; they will retire with records and titles and will go to the Hall of Fame someday.

But as great as their run was together, what they did not do will ultimately get the crux of the attention when their careers are done. ppabst@thenational.ae