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Kobe and Shaq: This team wasn't big enough for both of them, but it was amazing while it lasted

Kobe and Shaq: This team wasn't big enough for both of them, but it was amazing while it lasted
Lakers stars Kobe Bryant, left, and Shaquille O'Neal show off their 2002 NBA championship rings before a game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on Oct. 29, 2002. (Andrew D. Bernstein / Getty Images)

"The Kobe and Shaq Show."

All it needed was a programming slot to be the best reality show on TV from 1999 through 2004 during the Lakers' runs to three championships and four NBA Finals appearances.

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The real-life drama starred Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, two of the NBA's top alpha dogs. They were dominant on the court with the Lakers, until they and their outsized egos no longer could coexist. There was 24/7 angst around the two, the public fascinated by the constant bickering between Bryant and O'Neal and the intrigue of how they still found a way to win championships despite a deep dislike toward each other.

Even then-NBA commissioner David Stern was drawn in by magnetism of the story line, once saying he knew who the public would love to see play in the 2004 NBA Finals.

"The Lakers versus the Lakers," Stern said, half-jokingly.

The feud reached a zenith during the 2003-04 season. O'Neal, who was showing some wear and tear, was traded to Miami the following summer, while the Lakers bet their future on Bryant.

"Especially us, the 'young brothers,' we always worry about useless titles," O'Neal recently told The Times. "Like, 'I'm the man. It's my team.' Stuff that doesn't matter anyway. And I think there was a little bit too much focus on that by both of us. However, we were able to overcome that and still find a way to dominate and play together."

Bryant and O'Neal joined the Lakers before the 1996-97 season. O'Neal, who'd left Orlando as a free agent, was an All-Star. Bryant, acquired in a draft-day trade with Charlotte, was a confident teenage rookie. Both wanted the ball.

Bryant and O'Neal won three consecutive championships, from 2000-02, even while tension simmered along the way. O'Neal led the team in scoring in those championship seasons, won a league most-valuable-player award in 2000 and was NBA Finals MVP for all three titles. In their last two seasons together, Bryant led the Lakers in scoring.

Bryant was the workaholic in the off-season, while O'Neal's mantra was he'd get in shape during the season.

But at no time was O'Neal willing to hand over the mantle of the team to Bryant.

"What hurt L.A.? Young egos — Kobe's and Shaq's," said former Lakers guard Ron Harper, who won two championships with them. "I love them both. But see, I respect Kobe because Kobe came to training camp in shape, ready to go, rock and roll. Shaq, the last couple of years in Los Angeles, had to play himself into game shape.

"But if they could have just found a way to coexist a little damned bit, just a little bit, they could have won five championships on the same team — six championships, seven championships. . . .

"They had a great head coach in Phil [Jackson] and a great supporting team. You telling me that team couldn't win the championship three or four years in a row? But as much as I love those two, they were young, man, and they had big egos. Their egos killed that team."

In his final three years with the Lakers, O'Neal played in just 67 regular-season games each season, with various injuries keeping him off the court.

Meanwhile, Bryant was ascending as one of the world's preeminent players.

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Bryant was no longer the Robin to O'Neal's Batman, in his teammates' eyes, no longer willing to take a back seat to his more brash teammate.

"They were 1A and 1A. That's what created all the anxiety," said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who won three titles with Bryant and O'Neal. "It's hard to have two alphas, you know? I just think they were in different eras. Shaq was older, Kobe was younger. Shaq was already established and Kobe was trying to establish himself. I think when I look back on it, that was the difference in each of their careers where they were at a different point and different stages where both were really striving to be the best in the game."

The Lakers put together what fans thought would be a dream team in the summer of 2003, getting free agents Gary Payton and Karl Malone to join Bryant and O'Neal.

But the circus that always surrounded the Lakers turned serious when Bryant was charged with sexual assault in July 2003 (the charge was later dropped). During the 2003-04 season, he often flew to Eagle, Colo., for his legal case and returned to play in a game that night.

The relationship between the two stars reached its low point.

When the Lakers convened for training camp in Hawaii in 2003, O'Neal said, "The full team is here," even though Bryant hadn't arrived yet.

On the eve of the 2003-04 season, Bryant lambasted his antagonist, saying O'Neal needed to stop "coming to camp fat and out of shape."

This was how the saga played throughout the season, their teammates just bystanders to the never-ending quarrel.

"What neither one of them realized is the effect that it had on the rest of us," said former guard Brian Shaw, who also won three rings with Bryant and O'Neal. "I don't think for once at that time either one of them gave any thought to anybody else but themselves, in terms of what their bickering and stuff was doing to the rest of us. . . .

"The four years I was there, it was the same. So I still don't know if I ever thought it went so south that it wasn't going to be able to work. Because at the end of the day, they always were able to, once they got onto the court, just play ball. I don't think that they ever went out of their way, either one of them, to not perform and do their best to win when they were playing together on the floor."

The Lakers lost in the 2004 NBA Finals to Detroit, leading to the end of a dynasty that left even Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich saddened. "The competitive part of me feels like the Soviet Union just disbanded," Popovich said after the Lakers were broken up.

That summer O'Neal was shipped to the Heat, Jackson was sent packing and Lakers owner Jerry Buss eventually got Bryant to sign a seven-year, $136-million contract to be the face of the franchise.

"I think our time had just run its course," O'Neal said. "But we were the most dominant one-two punch in Lakers history. I said it. Write it down. Take a picture. Fax it to all the retired Lakers. I said it. The most enigmatic, dominant, controversial one-two punch in Lakers history."

Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter: @BA_Turner

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