Shaq is sure Kobe Bryant would appreciate his new statue

They first came together in 1996 when Shaquille O’Neal joined the Lakers as a free agent and Kobe Bryant arrived 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 O’Neal and Bryant to be honored at the highest level by the Lakers.

On Thursday, Bryant’s statue will be unveiled at the 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.

O’Neal said he never thought he would get a statue, and he and Bryant never discussed being honored in that way. O’Neal said they perhaps believed that if they won enough championships their jerseys would be retired.

“NO. I didn’t even think I would get one, and the reason was because to be a Lakers legend, you have to be consistently great,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And I and Kob knew at the beginning that we weren’t great Lakers. When I got there, I was doing really well and he was just good. And then we both ended up getting pretty good. Then Phil [Jackson] came [in as coach in 1999,] That’s when s— began to change. Then we won one, two and three championships and then my statue happened. Then all of you [in the media] jumped out at him: “Oh, you can’t win without Diesel,” and that drove him crazy and he won two more championships. And now Kobe has his statue.”

Bryant’s relentlessness led him to win two of his five championships, in 2009 and 2010, after O’Neal left LA. Together they won three in a row from 2000 to 2002.

Like everyone else, O’Neal wishes Bryant were here to join in the celebration. Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.

O’Neal sees the preservation of his statue as a crowning achievement. He thinks Bryant would have felt the same way.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant chat during the unveiling of O’Neal’s statue outside Staples Center in 2019.

(Mark J Terrill/AP)

“That would mean a lot,” O’Neal said. “He was a doer. Whatever he decided to do, he would do it, no matter who liked it, no matter who he upset. He just wanted to do it.”

O’Neal had seen more than enough of Bryant to know that 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 fouled out in the game, leaving the Lakers vulnerable and threatening a possible 2-2 tie in the best-of-seven series.

But Bryant wouldn’t let that happen, his level of play reached new heights, his physical strength and determination were clearly visible.

Bryant had missed Game 3 with a left ankle sprain that he suffered early in Game 2. He had said his ankle was “throbbing” but that wouldn’t stop him.

With O’Neal on the bench and the Lakers playing in overtime, Bryant made two jumpers and capped his gutsy performance with a reverse layup putback with 5.9 seconds left. The Lakers won, taking 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 and then he looked over and said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and then took over the game,” O’Neal said. “You knew he had arrived when he reached the final. But I knew after that game that we would definitely win the championship. It was like, ‘Oh shit, it’s over now.’ They don’t have an answer for me and they already couldn’t stop him.’ But he just showed you: ‘From now on you can’t do anything that will give you even a chance of victory.’”

O’Neal and Bryant had their differences, which eventually led to O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat in 2004.

Still, O’Neal speaks with reverence about their time together.

“We were the best small-to-large duo ever,” O’Neal said. “Not the best duo because you have Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen.] But the best guard-to-big man duo ever created. And that includes Magic and Kareem.

“The only reason for this was that all outside odds should be against us. ‘Shaq hates Kobe!’ Kobe hates Shaq!’ … But as I said, we were the most enigmatic and controversial one-two punch ever. The stories that were told: “These [dudes] are at each other.’ But we have three [championships] of four, i.e. 75%. If we had gotten one out of four, the story would have been a “what if” and we would still be talking about it today. But hey, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”


“Because the ultimate goal is to win this championship. We got three in a row. In a row. Could have finished fourth, but it didn’t work out that way. Things had to change and the basketball business took off and he was able to get Phil back and Kobe got two more.”

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