Editor’s note: You can read part 1 here.
In 2003 Kobe Bryant was going through a myriad of issues off the court. There was talk of his jealousy toward teammates, talk of a feud between Bryant and soon-to-be-former head coach Phil Jackson, and his team was about to lose the services of one of the best NBA big men of all time as Shaquille O’Neal prepped the runway for his departure.
In July of that year, Bryant faced charges of sexual assault by a hotel worker in Colorado. After his acquittal in 2004, transcript records released by the police revealed that while being interrogated, Bryant had fingered O’Neal as being unfaithful in his marriage. This bit of information did not go over well with Shaq fans.
Despite these blemishes on his credibility and commercial marketability, Bryant would lose himself in basketball and spend the better part of the next decade becoming the best player in the NBA.
Rewind to 1999, when Kobe Bryant’s game had taken yet another quantum leap toward greatness. His array of scoring moves off the dribble seemed to multiply exponentially as defender after hapless defender was left cowering in his wake.
In Bryant’s fourth and fifth seasons as a professional, he and O’Neal would win the second and third of their NBA championships together. In 2001 the Los Angeles Lakers would beat a Philadelphia 76ers team led by Allen Iverson 4-1. Shaq and Kobe would average 30.4 and 29.4 respectively. Their combined scoring average placed them among the top five scoring duos in the history of the NBA Finals. Their unquestioned dominance went unchallenged in 2002 as well.
The Kobe-Shaq combination would win one more championship in 2002 after sweeping the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets 4-0.
The following season, the Kobe-Shaq feud that had gone largely unheard of in the media since 2001 was born anew as Kobe called out Shaq for being out of shape, for exaggerating the extent of his injuries to cover up his weight and for threatening not to play hard if he wasn’t passed the ball more during the 2002-2003 series. The Lakers’ bid for a four-peat was squashed by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.
The 2003-2004 season would end in disappointment as well, with a cocky and self-assured Los Angeles Lakers squad losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Los Angeles would lose the series in what would be jokingly described as “the first five-game sweep in the history of the NBA Finals.” The Lakers would lose 4 games to 1. Afterward, claims of a ball-hogging Bryant were reignited.
After the loss in the Finals, head coach Phil Jackson retired.
There was a tremendous amount of speculation circulating regarding Bryant’s role in his departure. At the All Star break, Jackson had drawn first blood in stating that he would not return to coach the Lakers if Bryant returned. Shaq, after learning of Jackson’s departure, and hearing General Manager Mitch Kupchak say he was looking to move him, demanded to be traded.
“The direction they’re going … I don’t want to be a part of this,” the Albany Herald quoted Shaq as saying.
O’Neal would eventually be shipped to the Miami Heat. After briefly flirting with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant would re-sign with the Lakers for seven years at $137 million.
O’Neal added, “When it came to my leaving, [Kobe] could have spoken up. He could have said something. He didn’t say anything.”
Assistant coach Tex Winter said, “[O’Neal] left because he couldn’t get what he wanted—a huge pay raise. There was no way ownership could give him what he wanted. Shaq’s demands held the franchise hostage, and the way he went about it didn’t please the owner too much.”