He called him the world's best player here in 2000, and it was entirely sincere.
"It was where the run started," Bryant said of the Lakers' three consecutive championships.
O'Neal fouled out in Game 4 after a 36-point, 21-rebound effort and Bryant took it from there despite a sprained ankle, helping the Lakers beat the Pacers for a 3-1 series lead.
Bryant made four of five shots in overtime and, with the Lakers ahead by one point, followed Brian Shaw's miss with an over-the-head bank shot with 5.9 seconds left. The Lakers won, 120-118, and wrapped up the series in six games.
"The rebound was just luck. That was just the basketball gods just looking out for me," Bryant said.
More skillful were the outside shots he made after O'Neal fouled out halfway through overtime.
"I remember just trying to get comfortable with the ankle and as the game progressed it felt looser and looser," Bryant said. "When Shaq fouled out … I was just kind of sitting on that opportunity [to make jumpers]. It was just a matter of making them."
O'Neal, who later fought bitterly with Bryant, recently recounted his memories of that game fondly in an interview with The Times.
"Remember I was killing Rik Smits and I fouled out and they made that run? Everybody was worried, including Phil [Jackson]," he said, mentioning the Lakers coach at the time. "And Kobe came up to me and said, 'Don't worry. I got it.'
"That's when he put on that show. That's when I got behind the podium after the game and said, 'Kobe is the best player in the world.' "
Bryant had a unique memory of Game 4. He said Monday that the Lakers were staying "two hours" from the arena, somewhat of an exaggeration, and received a police escort to the game in a downpour.
Oddly, a motorcyclist rode alongside the bus and kept doing handstands on his bike. Bryant found it funny.
"It just kind of took the pressure off the game," he said.
Former Lakers guard Derek Fisher was fired Monday by his ex-coach, Jackson, slightly more than 1 1/2 seasons after Jackson hired him to coach the New York Knicks.
Fisher's firing was "the nature of the beast," said ex-teammate Bryant, adding that "I'm sure he'll pop up somewhere as a head coach."
It was unusual for a coach to come straight from his playing days, Bryant acknowledged, but he knew Fisher enjoyed his new occupation. They hadn't spoken since the firing, Bryant said.
New York (23-31) had lost five consecutive games and was fading from the Eastern Conference playoff race.