According to the most frequently told lore, the Lakers journeys of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant began at the same time, as did their partnership. The two were inexorably linked by a draft day trade that not only acquired Bryant as a 17-year-old rookie, but cleared the cap space for the Lakers to steal O’Neal from Orlando. Jerry West had assembled two NBA Infinity Stones, and the Lakers ran off three titles in a relative snap.
However, it turns out that Bryant and O’Neal’s relationship actually began before that, even if Shaq himself didn’t even remember it until his late teammate jogged his memory. He told the story during his latest appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon:
“Actually, Kobe reminded me of the story. I was in Orlando, and him and his family came in the locker room, and he asked Penny for an autograph, and I guess Penny kinda blew him off or whatever, I’m not sure, this is what Kobe was telling me. And then he said he came up to me and I was really nice to him, and I had never knew that until one day he told me (during) his rookie year. He was like ‘do you remember me?’ I was like ‘nah.’ He was like ‘I came in the locker room’ and I was like ‘oh yeah, that was you.’
“What I realized I loved about him early on was that he wanted the spot. He wanted to be the best. Kobe and myself, we probably could have gotten one or two on our own, but if it wasn’t for Brian Shaw, Rick Fox, Big Shot Bob, the guys that I call ‘The Others,’ I definitely wouldn’t have four... What I want people to get out of it is that no matter what you may hear or what you see, it was all in the interest of winning. And if I had it to do all over again I’d do it the same way. I always respected the kid, and he always respected me.”
Demonstrating that respect was a wistful tweet Shaq sent a few days after this interview, when Bryant was announced as one of the cover stars of NBA 2K21.
Unfortunately, tweets like that are all Shaq can send now when it comes to Bryant. Even though he and Bryant were clearly on better terms by the time of Bryant’s tragic passing than they were as teammates, from the sound of things, O’Neal never got to fully tell Bryant how much he cared:
“I’m learning from this now, because shortly before Kobe passed away, my sister passed away, so it’s been really tough for me. So I want to urge everybody that if you want to say something to anybody, don’t wait. I don’t care if you’re having arguments, or if you love them and miss them. If you miss them, pick up your phone and tell them you miss them right then. If you’re thinking about them, make sure you call them right away. Because I would love now to even call him and say ‘Kobe, I’m gonna post a picture of us winning a championship 20 years ago.’ I can’t do that anymore, and we never really talked on the phone a lot, because that’s how we as players are. We spend a lot of time together, but we have other lives. We have wives, we have children, we have businesses, so we spend time on that.
“He did a great job of keeping in touch with my kids, and I’ve always been sweet to his kids, but I just wish I could have said at least ‘hi,’ or ‘you missed me when I was wide open,’ or ‘hey, you never taught me how to shoot free-throws,’ or ‘hey you got five, I got four, should I come back this year and play with LeBron?’ Just shoot the breeze, and that’s the only regret. The same thing with my sister, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her, I was working and trying to provide for the family, but it just haunts me every day that I couldn’t express my last feelings to them. So again, people out there who are listening and watching, if you want to call and talk to somebody, do not wait.”
This is a lesson that unfortunately many of us only learn through tragedy. I remember my first one came in high school, when one of my closest friends died in a car accident on her way home from school. The last thing we’d done was fight. I hadn’t made it clear enough how much I cared. I will always regret it.
I’d like to say that this is a lesson I took to heart and always learned from, but we all know real life isn’t that clean and linear. Or at least it isn’t for me. Sometimes I still don’t tell people enough how much I care about them. We all have a tendency, especially men, to leave those real feelings unsaid, to sometimes let playful teasing take the place of genuine displays and admissions of affection. But we all need to make sure that we actually tell people how we feel, too, even if we’re angry, or even if casual sarcasm and snark is easier.
This isn’t meant to be a lecture. Not from myself, and likely not from Shaq, either. We’re all guilty of not telling people how we feel at times, or at least I know I am. What Shaq’s story should be a reminder of, however, is that as much as we can, we need to let people know we care, as often as possible. We need to let disagreements go, because we never know if they’ll be our last interaction with someone we love. Most importantly, we just have to try and always make it clear to those we care about just how much we appreciate them. Especially in these uncertain times, we need to let people know that we love them, before it’s too late.