Only in looking back can Kobe Bryant truly appreciate the impact Shaquille O'Neal had on his career. In basketball history it is impossible to mention one without the other.
"When you win three titles together and you've had so much impact on one another's legacy as a player and as a champion," Bryant said by phone this week, "there is absolutely no way in the world I would miss an opportunity to talk about him and thank him and to acknowledge everything that he's done for not only this organization and the city, but for me personally."
On Friday afternoon O'Neal and Bryant will be together again, this time in an unfettered celebration of O'Neal, what he meant to the Lakers and what he meant to Staples Center. The Lakers, Staples Center and AEG will unveil a 1,200-pound, nine-foot bronze statue that will hang from Staples Center, hovering over Star Plaza.
Bryant will be among the dignitaries at the ceremony, as will Jerry West, who brought both players to Los Angeles. Phil Jackson, who taught them how to win championships, is expected to attend, too.
At the center of the celebration is a man who can hardly believe it.
"It's a very surreal moment," O'Neal said. "Unexpected. I still think there's a couple other guys that probably deserve a statue more than me. Like "Big Game" James [Worthy] and Wilt Chamberlain. But I'm honored. They're giving me a statue in front of the place I like to say I built. Staples does start with S."
To say he built Staples Center is only hyperbole in the literal sense.
When they courted O'Neal, the Lakers were in an eight-year championship drought — what seemed like a depression back then.
There was plenty of doubt inside the franchise that they would be able to land him at all during that summer of 1996. O'Neal sought a team with a similar makeup to the one he had in Orlando. He was motivated by landing a monster contract, being someone who drew inspiration from what others were paid.
West, the team's general manager, convinced O'Neal he could achieve his goals with the Lakers — that he could achieve greatness.
"Maybe one of the proudest days of my life was when he said I'm coming," West said. "… At that point in time players wanted to come here because of the success of the team and winning. And also because of Jerry Buss. I think they had great belief in him as an owner."
O'Neal made an impression in person.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss doesn't recall their first conversation with O'Neal — she assumes she was too terrified of the giant man before her. Bryant first met O'Neal as a 16-year-old and said his hand "swallowed" Bryant's whole arm. When they became teammates he recalls the physicality with which O'Neal played.
"Our first practice, Travis Knight just looked like he just went through hell," Bryant said.
Knight was a rookie the same year as Bryant and Derek Fisher. But Knight was O'Neal's rookie. That meant during training camp in Hawaii, Knight trekked to O'Neal's room before every practice so he could carry his shoes for him. Knight got a slap on his neck any time he passed up a dunk for a layup — O'Neal's way of teaching the young big man to be more aggressive.
"I just remember trying to push on him and it was the same as trying to push on a wall or move a car," Knight said. "I'm giving everything I got and it's not even budging."
For the first three years of the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers era, they played at the Forum in Inglewood before leaving for Staples Center.
At the arena's groundbreaking ceremony, O'Neal wore an ill-fitting hard hat. An AEG official told him one day he'd have a statue in front of that arena.
To start his legacy, with Jackson as the Lakers' first-year coach, they won a championship immediately.
"All I wanted was one," O'Neal said. "A lot of people criticized me for not having one. And then after we got one they said bet you can't get two."
Said Buss: "I tell every owner in the NBA that's moving into a new arena, make sure you win in the first year because it makes everything a lot easier."
O'Neal's infectious personality became even bigger. His won over his teammates with jokes and pranks and a fierce loyalty. When an opponent was picking on then-rookie Luke Walton, O'Neal leveled the player off a screen. He later gave a makeover to Walton's beat-up 1970 Cadillac as a gift.
After three championships, there was an expiration date to O'Neal's Lakers career. His relationship with Bryant seemed frayed. He has said the organization's loyalty to Bryant impacted him. In his Hall of Fame speech, he even said with a smile that Bryant pushed him to being traded to the Miami Heat. That trade happened in October of 2004.
For his own legacy, Bryant wanted to do it alone. But he says now that he never viewed that as a power struggle. He laughed at remembering O'Neal's line during his Hall of Fame speech.
"I guess by default maybe that's true," said Bryant. "My mind was going someplace else, understanding that Shaq was going to stay. … He opened the window first. Once he demanded the trade … that put a halt to my free agency because the Lakers were not going to lose Shaq and me in the same year."
In truth, the money was a bigger factor than anything else. The Lakers simply weren't willing to pay O'Neal what he wanted and could earn elsewhere. Jerry Buss called O'Neal to tell him that.
"He called me and said hey we're going to do something else, and I understood that," O'Neal said. "Me being a marketing genius that I am, I wanted it to look like something else, but it really was never that."
They remained close until Jerry Buss' death in 2013. O'Neal visited in the hospital and spent more than an hour with the ailing Lakers owner.
"I wish he was still able to be here," O'Neal said. "Especially for my Hall of Fame ceremony."
Jeanie Buss said if O'Neal could have stayed for a dollar, he would have.
"I would prefer the Lakers to win every year, [but in Miami,] to see Shaq and Pat Riley win a championship, I take a little pride in that because they are still Lakers," she said.
Over the years, O'Neal's relationship with Bryant thawed. These days they talk occasionally, mostly texting about their children. Their rising height, Bryant said, offers a "brutal" reminder of the passage of time. Bryant said they are "extremely cordial."
When Bryant heard O'Neal was getting a statue, he congratulated his former center via Facetime. That was the only time the two have seen each other's faces since Bryant's last game in April of last year.
"I've learned so much from him," Bryant said. "He's extremely, extremely good at bringing others on the team and pushing them. Striking the balance between hard leadership and a pat on the back. Those are things I learned from him. … That was a big, big shift for me."
He hasn't attended many Lakers functions since his retirement, but to tell O'Neal and the world about that, he will.