This week, while speaking onstage for something called Valuetainment, Kobe Bryant caused a minor stir by calling out Shaquille O’Neal for having been out of shape and unmotivated during their time together on the Lakers. After heaping praise on O’Neal, Bryant quipped that “I wish he was in the gym. We would’ve had fucking 12 rings.” He went on to insist that it was “nothin’ but love” between the two, which didn’t stop O’Neal from firing back on Instagram that “u woulda had 12 if you passed the ball more especially in the finals against the pistons.”
It was the latest episode in the longstanding love/hate relationship between the two, which, while never low on fireworks, has at this point become totally predictable. What has shifted is the perception around the dynamic between the two, which no longer feels like a fair fight. In the wake of his glossy post-retirement PR blitz, Bryant has somehow cemented himself as one of the sport’s most celebrated greats, a self-styled savant who doubles as a valuable ambassador. O’Neal, on the other hand, is a big galoot whose role on TNT’s studio show consists largely of physical comedy and calling out blatant silliness around the league in an “it takes one to know one” sort of way. Bryant is so revered, and O’Neal has leaned so hard into clowning around, that it doesn’t even feel like the two inhabit the same planet.
But it’s not just their respective public personas that have shifted over the years in a way that reflects unfavorably on O’Neal. Bryant's stock has risen to the point where only the most fanatical dead-enders still think of him as an inefficient, egomaniacal ball hog. While not in the discussion for GOAT (whatever that means), Bryant’s competitive fire and single-minded zeal have become the stuff of legend, to the point where he’s replaced the increasingly irrelevant Michael Jordan as the standard-bearer in that department. For years, Bryant was as polarizing a figure as you’ll find in sports. The discourse around him at any given moment was so heated, and impenetrable, that it was hard to imagine him ever achieving any kind of stable, agreed-upon legacy.
If Bryant has improbably landed on something timeless, O’Neal is in danger of being swallowed up by history. His resume is still perfectly impressive—career averages of 23.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, four titles, an MVP, three Finals MVPs, and 15 All-Star appearances—but the numbers and accolades only begin to tell the story. In his prime, O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen. No matter how many defenders opposing teams threw at him, when O’Neal got the ball on the block a bucket was all but guaranteed. The only feasible option was to send him the line, which gave rise to the “Hack-A-Shaq,” which necessitated any would-be contender loading up on big bodies whose sole role was to accumulate fouls. O’Neal was so unstoppable that, when he was healthy and motivated, it was generally assumed that the Lakers were unbeatable. It’s become a cliché to say that he deserved the MVP every year but that doesn’t make it any less true: The entire NBA revolved around O’Neal. Everyone else from that era—even Bryant, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, and Kevin Garnett—were mortals by comparison.
Unlike Bryant, whose brand is built around conveniently reducing his career to a series of talking points, appreciating O’Neal depends on context. He’s become one of those “you had to be there” athletes, one you simply don’t get if you weren’t around to experience what it was like to watch him in his prime, or closely follow the NBA during those years. Everybody knows that O’Neal was a monster; he’s not esoteric in the way that his former Orlando Magic teammate Penny Hardaway (or, for matter, fellow Magic legends Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, and Dwight Howard) have become, where any conversation about them devolves into a stand-off between “you just don’t get it” and “you were blinded by hype.” But the sheer gravity that O’Neal exerted at the height of his powers is hard to communicate because it was as much a mood, a general feeling in the air, as something that is readily expressed by numbers or even footage. O’Neal cast as long a shadow over the NBA as any player ever has; you could only talk about the league for so long without his name coming up; and the sense of inevitability around him and the Lakers inspired a mix of awe and dread. It was an experience, as emotional as it was empirical, and there’s simply no way to adequately convey, much less recreate, the singular effect O’Neal had on the sport.
There was, of course, always persistent talk about O’Neal’s lack of motivation and poor physical conditioning, which is exactly the angle of attack Bryant chose. While there was certainly some truth to this criticism, it also served as a source of comfort—proof that O’Neal could, and maybe would, be stopped. If opposing teams couldn’t beat him, not even with Hack-A-Shaq, then maybe O’Neal would beat himself. This provided a glimmer of hope, in terms of both the game (or season) at hand and the larger question of whether or not basketball would ever return to normal again. The last few years of Warriors-induced panic—had they ruined the NBA? Did any other team have a chance?—were laughable when compared to just how much O’Neal did reduce the league’s competitive balance to rubble.
In hindsight, it’s worth pointing out that O’Neal may be blamed entirely too much for his flaws. He was fouled on every play, whether it was called or not, and the sheer amount of physical punishment his body absorbed would today be cause for insanely scrupulous load management. What’s more, his body itself would register wear and tear in a far different way than, say, Bryant’s decidedly more “normal” physique. If O’Neal had come along a generation later, he would have been protected at all costs. Keeping him maximally effective and selectively deployed would have been the primary responsibility of a team’s coaching and training staffs. Generally speaking, it can be hard to imagine players from the past performing at the same level in today’s NBA. In O’Neal’s case, though, he would likely have been even scarier, or at least put in a better position to succeed and work cooperatively with a team, rather than being hung out to dry as an individual.
That’s the quandary around O’Neal: For better or worse, he’s inextricably tied to a very specific moment in time. There’s no way to make sense of him outside of his context because what made him so scary is that he was the context for everything else in the NBA. Bryant, a far less singular and impactful athlete, can appeal to a broader, and more generic, version of things. But O’Neal is a prisoner of the era he defined. That’s not to say that he’s a dinosaur who compares unfavorably to present-day big men. Only that O’Neal’s crowning achievement, the thing that his legacy should be staked on, is intangible and possibly ineffable. And maybe the only thing that can be said to back it up is “you just have to take my word for it.”
The most exciting young college player in forever talks about why he chose Duke, being perceived as a dunker, and that time he gained 100 pounds in two years.
Originally Appeared on GQ