It’s a downcast time for Lakers fans--not a feeling we’re accustomed to holding for long--but we shouldn’t cry and moan like we’re Suns fans or something. We’re better than that: We have a proud, triumphant history to reflect on.
The Lakers are among the distinguished franchises in major sports history to have multiple dynastic periods. Most recently, the Lakers enjoyed a lush reign in the late 2010's; winning two consecutive NBA championships and making the NBA Finals three times in a row. Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers won a commanding five championships in the 1980s. The Lakers have won 16 NBA championships throughout their exalted history.
Perhaps the Lakers dynasty with the most bombast and pomp was the three-peat team of the early 2000s. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal formed a mythical nucleus--though their tiffs and farces were almost as mythical as their triumphs.
The Shaq and Kobe era was a turbulent, exciting, and eventful time for L.A. In this list, we’ll explore some behind-the-scenes drama from the '96-’04 Lakers and assess some of the tendencies that made the team legendary.
15 Phil Jackson blames Shaq’s ‘clown role’ for unraveling the dynasty
It’s inevitable--or so the boring cliche goes--that all things, including sports dynasties, must end. Fitful factors like health and team chemistry eventually atrophy and cause dynasties to crumble. Coach Phil Jackson, however, thinks his Lakers powerhouse of the early 2000s could have protracted their dominance if not for the antics of their mischievous center.
At the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Jackson suggested that Shaquille O’Neal’s work ethic was slack.
“Shaq had a clown role he had to play,” Jackson said. “So that was part of the rift.”
The rift Jackson is referring to fissured between Shaq and Kobe Bryant. Bryant approached basketball with steadfast, no-nonsense urgency; a stark contrast to Shaq’s silly, mercurial temper. The two titans clashed often.
Jackson continued: “Shaq didn’t work at it. Michael (Jordan) was able to succeed despite all kinds of limitations in his game. Kobe saw (Jordan’s work ethic) as a pinnacle that he had to reach, and he took it to a whole new level.”
14 Jackson made his players meditate before games
Jackson’s moniker--“The Zen Master”-- isn’t a hollow label. Jackson ventured to decompress his players with routine group meditation sessions before games.
During a panel at the American Express Teamed Up event in 2016, Shaq and Jackson reflected on their professional relationship and shared personal stories. Shaq drolly recalled Jackson’s imposed meditation, making particular note of the smell that lingered from the “sage” that Jackson would kindle to set the mood.
"It smelled just like weed," O'Neal said.
Jackson assured Shaq that he was, in fact, smelling sage--the renowned coach said that sage is a “cousin” of marijuana and therefore smells similarly skunky.
13 Jackson made his players do book reports
Among Jackson’s many coaching quirks, perhaps the most bizarre was his insistence on his players to comprise detailed book reports.
Coach Jackson would assign his Lakers books to read, then he’d ask them to submit a summation report. The reports would ensure that his players soaked in the teachings of the assigned prose. Most players embraced Jackson’s avant-garde approach, while others were skeptical.
"I went on Cliffnotes.com," Shaq said of his assignment to read the works of Nietzche. Diesel, however, confessed to reading and enjoying Siddhartha upon Jackson’s recommendation.
Jackson tailored his assignments for each player. When he foisted a specific book on someone, it was intentive: Jackson wanted his athletes to extrapolate precise wisdoms from the readings, wisdoms that Jackson reckoned would direct his players to become pliant cogs in the winning machine.
12 Shaq didn’t actually want to leave L.A.
Despite openly demanding to be traded, frequent bickering with his teammates and bosses, and embroilment in endless gossip-driven drama, Shaq was reluctant to move on from the Lakers. After all, the team erected three consecutive championship banners during Shaq’s tenure in LA. Who wouldn’t miss winning? Who wouldn’t miss high-fiving Jack Nicholson?
In a 2015 interview on The Mason and Ireland Show, Shaq spoke on his regrets during his final weeks as a Laker: “(I regret) a lot of things. You just played the clip where I said I wanted to be traded. I definitely did not want to leave L.A.”
“That’s how you’ve got to talk when you’re in business, especially when you think you’re in control. Definitely didn’t want to leave L.A. A lot of stuff was said out of the heat of the moment.”
Shaq acknowledged that he could have won more rings with Kobe had they resolved their hang-ups and focused their efforts on the hardwood.
11 Kobe hated the press circus surrounding the team
Bryant was a willful participant in the barbed media sound bite war he waged with Shaq. The dysfunctional pair would send molten volleys at each other through the press; which naturally led to heightened animosity. Kobe regrets the charade.
Bryant expressed his lament on Mason and Ireland in 2015: “To me, the most important thing was really just keep your mouth shut. You don’t need to go to the press with stuff. You keep it internal and we have our arguments and our disagreements, but I think having our debates within the press was something I wish would’ve been avoided, but it did kind of create this whirlwind around us as a team with myself and Shaq and the press and the media that just put so much pressure on us as an organization.”
Perhaps Kobe’s most snide remark was calling Shaq “fat” and “lazy” to reporters during the twilight of the dynasty--O’Neal had arrived to Summer League out of shape. It’s that kind of indirect pot-shotting that Bryant came to regret.
10 Shaq wasn’t easy to pry from Orlando
Although the legendary big man intended to test the market, Shaquille O’Neal was keen on staying with the Orlando Magic during his free agency period in 1996. He stated that he’d be happy to stay; granted Orlando would match any outside offer that came Shaq’s way.
The Lakers initiated a bidding war to persuade Shaq to come westward. Magic owner Rich DeVos extended a seven-year, $115 million offer to Shaq to match LA’s initial bid, but the Lakers’ deep pockets afforded to counter with an additional $10 million on top of DeVos’s figure.
''We've made an offer that is more than fair,” DeVos said to the Orlando Sentinel. “If Shaq wants to jump ship to the Lakers, so be it.”
Had DeVos been more covetous of Diesel, perhaps Shaq would have opted to stay in Orlando. The makings of an oppressive Laker dynasty could have been spoiled if Magic brass matched LA’s offer.
9 It took years for the dynasty to coalesce
Shaq and Kobe both signed with LA in the offseason of 1996--four years before the team won their first championship with the bejeweled tandem. It’s easy to forget the losing, but it happened.
It took years of trial and multiple playoff heartbreaks for the dynasty to assume an imposing form. While the team enjoyed regular season success from ‘96 through ‘99, they sputtered in the playoffs against experienced teams like the Jazz and the Spurs.
Losing hard-fought playoff battles proved to be a maturation boon for the team. They learned how to pace themselves and maintain composure.
Once the ‘99/’00 season came around, the Lakers became a playoff juggernaut for three straight seasons. They plowed through nearly every playoff opponent en route to three consecutive championships.
The legendary team was forced to a game 7 only once during their stretch of dominance--in the ‘99/’00 Western Conference Finals against Portland. The following season, L.A. lost only won game throughout their entire playoff run.
8 Bryant drew harsh criticism for selfishness during his formative years
Bryant is remembered as an avatar of self-seeking glory, but that reputation is largely linked to his latter years with the Lakers. In fact, Bryant’s selfishness and perceived lack of court vision were subject to scrutiny even during his first few seasons.
Young Kobe handled criticism with tact and grace for a teenager--it’s important to acknowledge that Bryant was very young to assume such a prominent role on a limelit NBA team. Grace nonwithstanding, Bryant would often heave the ball with confidence from absurd ranges without so much as glimpsing at his teammates.
“There are times he likes to go one on five,” former teammate Nick Van Exel said of Bryant.
During the waning minutes of a close elimination game against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs, Bryant chucked four shots from beyond the arc without pause. None of these attempts managed to scrape the net. The Lakers lost on Kobe’s air balls.
In time, Bryant became a more shrewd playmaker. He led the dynastic teams in assists, and developed a nuanced pick-and-roll rapport with Shaq.
7 Things got so testy between Kobe and Shaq that O’Neal reportedly ‘wanted to kill’ Kobe
Hyperbole? Perhaps. Still, even jesting suggestion of killing someone is austere.
Aging stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone signed with the Lakers in 2003. The Lakers failed to actualize the “4-peat” earlier that year when they were eliminated by the Spurs. The signings of Payton and Malone placed championship expectations back on the Lakers; who many people thought could break the regular season win record with Payton and Malone joining the fray. Despite injuries and rampant drama, the team did well, but ultimately fell short in the finals against Detroit.
Payton and Malone had no inkling of how serious the antagonism between Shaq and Kobe was before joining the team. They soon found out: Payton reported in 2015 that Shaq plainly said that he wanted to kill Bryant.
Payton elaborated: “I don’t think they communicated in the right way. They should’ve talked more, but it got to the point where we were in the papers, and all of a sudden the newspapers said this, they said Kobe said that and Shaq is reading these things and then you have to retaliate, and that’s not the best way to do it.”
6 Shaq recruited both Karl Malone and Gary Payton to join the team
Nabbing both Karl Malone and Gary Payton was a windfall for the Lakers in ‘03. Again, fans and pundits thought that by adding the two premium veterans, the Lakers were odds-on favorites to reclaim the crown that season. The '03/’04 Lakers were perhaps the first modern “super team” amalgamation; preceding Lebron’s stint in Miami and Boston’s big three of the late 2000s.
Apparently Lakers‘ management weren‘t the sole engineers of the gawk-worthy tinsel team. Shaq took credit for recruiting Payton and Malone, as per a Bleacher Report interview in 2015: “A lot of people ask me, what was my part in attracting Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the Lakers, and my answer is simple: I did it.”
Players recruiting other players to join forces and form stitched-together super teams has become a common, polarizing phenomena in the NBA ever since.
5 Luke Walton was Karl Malone’s personal rookie lackey
The dynasty was rife with melodrama and acrimony. There were, though, some fluffier stories amid the intense theater of Laker basketball.
Luke Walton, who’s currently the head coach of the Lakers, was a rookie for the veteran-loaded ‘03/’04 team. His rite of passage was arduous.
Walton recalled his hazing to Bleacher Report in 2015: “They had a bidding war on the flight over to decide whose rookie I was going to be—to pretty much make my life hell. Karl paid like $15,000 to make me his personal rookie for the year.”
Among Walton’s obligations to Malone, the rookie was repeatedly ordered to bring food, drinks, and even $100 headphones to the venerated forward. It was a playful but respected undertaking for Walton.
“I had to take this 30-minute taxi ride to some suburb in the snow to get him these nice $100 pair of headphones and the next day we’re getting off the plane and I see them just sitting in his chair. He’s already off the plane. So he sent me to get more headphones.”
4 Malone’s injury in 2003 left the team reeling
The Lakers met the garish expectations placed on them entering the ‘03/’04 season. Then Karl Malone got hurt.
L.A. started the season 19-5 before Malone suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss 39 games. The team was rattled by the sudden subtraction of Malone’s poise and guile: The Lakers went just 22-17 without Malone. What could have been a monumental regular season--a swaggering campaign to prepare the unit for their anticipated playoff run--became disappointing once Malone got hobbled.
“When he got hurt, not having him out there being an anchor, you just noticed something left the team,” said Luke Walton.
Upon Malone’s return, the Lakers went on a 14-4 run to end the season. Had he not been sidelined, the Lakers could have tuned their on-court chemistry to skyward heights and won more games.
The Lakers were good when Malone was playing. They would have been even better in the playoffs if Malone had a full season’s worth of games to become fluent in Phil Jackson’s system.
3 Kobe’s play during his stressful sexual assault trial inspired his teammates
The circus surrounding the ‘03/’04 super team gave many Lakers problems. Distractions and questions loomed: Would Shaq be back next year? Fisher was flustered by losing his starting gig. Coach Jackson’s future was in flux. Karl Malone’s injury soured the team’s hopes.
Amid the chaos, Kobe Bryant’s professionalism and determination during his court case inspired his teammates to strive. Bryant was intensely occupied by the trial, so occupied that he couldn’t practice and missed plenty of game minutes. The Black Mamba was routinely traveling to and from Colorado to tend to his trial, and yet he continued to log elite minutes on the court. He was not scrambled by the stress.
Luke Walton spoke to Bleacher Report about Bryant’s focus: “What was incredible about him is that there were nights he’d fly back from Colorado and Kareem Rush would be in the starting lineup and literally would get announced and Kobe would come straight from the airport, change and before the announcement ended and the jump ball started, he’d get out there, no warm-up, and just come out and score 42 points and be the most focused—like he didn’t have anything else going on.”
In awe of Bryant’s inspired ballplaying while under dire legal duress, Derek Fisher claimed that Kobe’s performance in '03/’04 confirmed to him that Bryant would rank among the best players ever by the end of his career.
2 The beef between Shaq and Kobe didn’t wreck their on-court chemistry
The venom between Shaq and Kobe is well-documented. They openly shared their mutual disdain; neither would hesitate to mutter their interpersonal grievances to the media. Despite their dicey relationship, the duo managed to tune out their bitterness when tip-off time came.
John Black, the long-time PR manager for the team, summed up Kobe and Shaq’s working relationship: “Mostly it was Shaq and Kobe didn’t like each other, but it didn’t affect them on the court. They would say something about the other, on or off the record, but it didn’t become confrontational more than two or three times over the eight years.”
Eventually, the rift between Kobe and Shaq reached a size beyond reconcile, but before that point they were able to parlay their basketball chemistry into three NBA titles. Shaq was compelled to skip town only once the annual champaign celebrations stopped.
Bryant and O’Neal wouldn’t have won anything together had they not been able to brush off their vendetta come game time. Each man took their craft seriously enough to put winning above their egos--to a sufficient extent, at least. Phil Jackson’s guidance also helped smooth the bumps.
1 The ‘super team’ of 2003-04 were not at all confident
Despite the championship pedigree that preceded them and the additions of hallowed veterans Malone and Payton, the ‘03/’04 Lakers lacked confidence that they could reach the pinnacle that people expected.
It’s easy to see why the Lakers were fazed: A series of freakish complications afflicted the squad that season. It was an outlandish, operatic year for the purple and gold.
The players’ doubts were only compounded by injuries to Malone and Shaq. Kobe’s fiasco weighed heavily on the team. Fisher’s confidence vanished after being demoted from his starting role. Payton felt astray in Jackson’s triangle offense. Blustery egos collided. The makeshift team was thrust into volatile, combustible circumstances.
Fisher reflected on that year’s stilted season in an interview with Bleacher Report: “We weren’t a team. We were a collection of very accomplished and high-achieving individuals.”
“Cracks and the flaws started to show up,” Rick Fox added. “We didn’t have the experience and the know-how to fall back into our system, and guys started to go individually one-on-one.”
The Lakers, in spite of their hitches, made the NBA finals that season. Their raw talent didn’t end up overcoming Detroit’s tuned, aqueous teamwork.