We’re admittedly too young to know everything about the greatest sports rivalries of all-time, but at least in terms of pure player-vs-player schisms, the Shaq/Kobe wars have to be right up there, don’t they?
Lindy’s Pro Basketball preview/yearbook/guide/overpriced-magazine has an excerpt from this December’s The Show. It’s by Roland Lazenby, author of Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey and Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant. The 544 pager is a detailed look at the history of the whole Laker organization, from the early days in Minneapolis, straight up through, like, yesterday.
Maybe it’s because it’s so Hollywood, maybe it’s because we’re suckers, but these Shaq/Kobe stories always feel really fresh, no matter how many times we read them. One of the kind posters over at the Lakers forum on the Insiders.com transcribed the Shaq/Kobe-centric sample from Mr. Lazenby’s book for us to pore through.
This is a long one, gang. Put on your reading glasses and take a bunch of pills…
We begin in the early days of the budding dynasty:
“The other players on the team wanted to make sure [Kobe] earned everything he got, that the coach didn’t just give him something just because the fans wanted to see this young phenom play,” recalled Del Harris, Bryant’s first coach with the Lakers.
That was especially true of Shaquille O’Neal, the game’s dominant young center who felt immense pressure to win championships. Each season his dislike of Bryant had grown.
“What surprised me about Shaquille during our early days in Los Angeles was how frustrated he got,” said former Lakers GM Jerry West. “He was not fun to be around. The shortcomings of our team and his teammates made him angry because he knew he was going to be judged on how much we won.”
Just months before Jackson arrived, O’Neal had slapped Bryant during a pickup game at the Laker practice facility.
“It would not be forgotten,” former Laker guard Derek Fisher said of the incident.
When Jackson and his coaching staff began work in Los Angeles, they were caught off guard by O’Neal’s level of animosity toward Bryant.
“There was a lot of hatred in his heart,” Tex Winter said of O’Neal. “he would speak his mind in our team meetings. He was saying really hateful things. Kobe just took it and kept going.
We don’t think it’s any secret that Shaq can be extremely petty, especially when it comes to Kobe. That said, we’re sure Kobe deserved the slapping.
Having witnessed the unfolding behind-the-scenes drama over five years, Lakers owner Jerry Buss [told Coach Phil Jackson] his services would no longer be needed.
Stunned, Jackson abruptly changed his approach with Bryant. Suddenly, the coach began trying to have a relationship with Bryant, Winter said. And Bryant responded in kind.
“But it was too late,” Winter said.
Buss had made up his mind. Jackson had to go. And the owner had no desire to meet O’Neal’s demands for a lengthy extension on his $30 million plus a year contract. So the Lakers traded him to Miami (where O’Neal would later meekly agree to play for $20 million a season).
As he was cleaning out his office, a jilted Jackson did his best to portray Bryant as the villain in the breakup of the team, and soon that perception became the reality, simply because so many people believed it. Jackson made sure of it, phoning reporters as he drove from Los Angeles to his summer home in Montana. He dialed up columnists and radio talk shows to offer his version of events. Sports columnists everywhere who had no idea why the Lakers had fallen apart simply began reporting as fact that Bryant had schemed to make it happen.
Despite the blame game Jackson was playing so deftly, he would later admit the truth. Despite all his success in Los Angeles, he had failed in his handling of Bryant. And that was one of several factors in the breakup of a very successful team.
“in the final analysis, it’s the coach’s responsibility to manage the team in the proper manner and not have those things happen,” Winter said.
It was simply a huge mistake to not keep Bryant in the loop, Winter said. “I think Phil realizes that now.”
We don’t think anyone has ever painted Phil Jackson as being totally innocent – the man makes a show of manipulating his players through the media often. This level of deception, though? Simply to cover his own ass?
Jackson and Bryant finally had that first serious meeting at Laker offices in July. According to Winter, Bryant wasted no time in making his feelings known about certain things Jackson had done to him. It was first step in the two trying to re-establish some sort of trust.
Jackson had endured a similar meeting several years earlier. In 1991, Jackson had served as an anonymous source for Sam Smith’s explosive expose, The Jordan Rules, a book that infuriated both Bulls GM Jerry Krause and Jordan for its unflattering portrait of them.
Seeing their anger, Jackson blamed the anonymous leak on his mentor and assistant coach, Johnny Bach, a sweet old guy and basketball lifer.
Eventually, Krause, Jackson and the Bulls fired Bach for “leaking” the Jordan Rules info, although they never explained that. He had a heart attack in the weeks after his devastating release. In 1998, Jackson’s treachery became known, and sometime later Bach and Jackson had a meeting. Bach wouldn’t reveal what he said to Jackson in the meeting that day, although the elderly coach said he made it clear what he thought of Jackson’s lowdown ways.
Well, that’s new.
Pressing on, a look to the future:
Even though Bryant knows the triangle better than any NBA player, [longtime Jackson assistant Tex] Winter isn’t ready to predict that the guard will blossom this year in the system. “I don’t know,” the 83-year-old coach said. “his bad habits are pretty well entrenched. Bad habits are hard to break. Kobe has got such great physical tools. And he wants to do the right thing. That’s the big thing. He wants to do it the right way. If he gets the right leadership, that will be the big thing. And that’s where Phil comes in.”
Praise laced with some skepticism. Interesting, also, that Tex wants no part of this anymore. Granted, he’s like 106, but still.
During the spring, Winter had expressed concern that Bryant’s spirit had been irreparably crushed by his team not making the playoff.
But Bryant wasted little time in showing during the offseason that his competitive fires were restoked and roaring. He showed up at the Lakers facilities at 6:30 each morning for grueling individual workouts. Shortly after 8 a.m., Bryant’s schedule then shifted to intense weightlifting sessions.
“He’s definitely motivated,” Winter confided. “I hope he’s not overdoing it.”
That, of course, has always been the concern with Bryant, from the very moment he came into the league.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see how he carries himself this year,” Winter says. “he’s had some humbling experiences over the past year. You have to be concerned that he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself. He’s always done that, always had this tremendous need to prove himself. He has this notion to prove he’s the best basketball player to ever play the game. That’s ridiculous. He just needs to go out and have some fun.”
Sounds good to us – Kobe always has fun! Like we said, this isn’t anything we haven’t read 50 times before in one form or another, but it’s once again getting the “interesting and enticing” label from us.
Well, we’re burnt. If you’re looking for jokes, go read some Down With the P. Poor ole’ Shorty!