Kobe thinks he wears the pants in the family, Shaq thinks that he does. Kobe complains that Shaq doesn't call, Shaq complains that Kobe's aloof. Kobe threatens to walk out on Shaq, Shaq tells him to go right ahead. And so Kobe says, in a moment of cruelty, that Shaq's butt has gotten big. Sound familiar? "It sounds like a marriage," says Dr. Joyce Brothers. When Shaq says Kobe hogs the ball, he might as well be talking about the covers.
What Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant really need, if the Los Angeles Lakers are to win another title (page 66), isn't the Mailman. It's Dr. J. Says Dr. Joyce, "Some people are incompatible, and the best thing for them to do is divorce. But a really good coach might be able to stop this squabbling." Good coach? They need a good marriage counselor. The Lakers are way beyond Coach Phil and now require Dr. Phil, who likes to say, "Competing can quickly turn a relationship into an ugly battle of one-upmanship. How can you possibly be a winner if it is at the expense of making the person you supposedly love a loser?"
This couple keeps playing "He Said, He Said," Shaq insisting he's the Man, Kobe suggesting that he's the Man. "Constant one-upping can be a real issue in all relationships," says Dr. Brenda Shoshanna, a psychologist and couples counselor based in New York City. "It goes on with parents and children, with office workers. The Lakers need to understand that each person is a Man, working toward a common purpose. And when that happens—when a team is like five fingers on a hand—they will be unstoppable."
But Shaq says Kobe is selfish, and Kobe says Shaq is childish. "Therapists call this displacement," says Audrey B. Chapman, a family therapist in Washington, D.C., where she hosts a radio show aimed at African-American listeners. "We displace our anger, frustration and fear onto something else." Like the uncapped toothpaste. Or the seat left up. Or the missed first day of training camp in Hawaii.
"I think O'Neal is angry and frustrated with the amount of attention Kobe has gotten lately [for his upcoming rape trial]," says Chapman. "And while it's negative attention, it still takes away from O'Neal, who is handling it by getting personal. Character assassination. You see that a lot with couples that are competitive."
When it comes to basketball, Dr. Joyce is not Dr. Jack Ramsay. ("Now, was Shaq also the coach of the Lakers?" she asks me.) However, she does know human nature. "Both Shaq and Kobe are used to being the moon and the sun and the stars," she says, in her soothing purr of a voice that's familiar to audiences from 50 years of American television. "Kobe is getting an enormous amount of publicity at the moment—not all of it good, granted—and Shaq is used to having that. Now, he has to compete for it."
Indeed, Kobe agrees that Shaq is jealous. ( Shaq says Kobe is.) Kobe says Shaq exaggerates his own injuries. ( Shaq says Kobe won't play hurt.) The question is, Can this marriage be saved? "These two guys are not relationship-savvy enough to stop the cycle," says Ellen Sue Stern, author of Loving an Imperfect Man and He Just Doesn't Get It. "This sounds to me like, 'My d—- is bigger than your d—-.' "
Not literally, mind you. At least not yet. But few would be surprised if it came to that. Says Chapman, "When you have two massive egos like this, each would rather have his own arm chopped off than submit to the other." That, too, could happen this season.
For now, Kobe has told Shaq he'll walk out on the Lakers after this season. "When that threat is in the air in a marriage, it's very dangerous, because it creates an insecurity," says Shoshanna, author of, appropriately enough, Why Men Leave. "Issues of abandonment are stirred up. It says to the partner, 'I can't count on this person, this person's not really there for me.' It's not a good note to strike, in a relationship or on a sports team."
So what can be done? "I would say the same to Shaq and Kobe as I'd say to Arafat and Sharon or any other alpha males who have a hard time dealing with these things," says Stern. "I'd say, 'What doesn't get better does get worse. Would you rather be right or make things right?' "