Yet they all went their separate ways: Shaq demanded a trade and Jackson reached a mutual decision with owner Jerry Buss that he would not be offered another contract. Jackson had conceded, publicly at times and much more strongly in private, that his relationship with Bryant was troubled. "They wanted to make some moves to accommodate signing Kobe," he said last week. "We knew they probably wouldn't work if I was coaching the team." Shaq, who has always slyly gotten his point across about Bryant without blasting him directly, said last week, "If you look at all the pieces of the puzzle that are thrown out there and you understand the game and understand the politics, you can put it all together and draw your own conclusions."
Disingenuous doesn't even begin to describe Bryant's reaction to the destruction of what could have been a dynasty. He denied urging Buss to get rid of Shaq and Jackson, denied lobbying for the hiring of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and said he was hurt by the accusations that his Machiavellian dealings had broken up the team. Then he admitted that he had called Krzyzewski—Coach K spurned L.A.'s five-year, $40 million offer—and that he did not recommend retaining Jackson to Buss.
But it's not all Bryant's fault. O'Neal's aversion to conditioning (he has missed 15 games in each of the last three seasons) contributed to Bryant's not wanting to play with him, a fact confirmed by multiple Lakers sources. Shaq was also demanding a huge extension that Buss had no desire to grant. And perhaps Jackson realized the time had come to recharge his batteries at his home in Montana, probably to return as a coach (in New York?) or a team president.
The only thing clear about the NBA earthquake that hit L.A. last week is that the fortunes of the purple and gold have declined—even with the return of center Vlade Divac, 36, who on Monday reportedly agreed to a free-agent deal with the Lakers. "It's going to be a struggle for us, an uphill battle," Bryant said last week. And provided he is still plying his chosen trade after the conclusion of his sexual assault trial which begins in Eagle, Colo., on Aug. 27, it will be his struggle, his uphill battle.
The mood in Miami is immeasurably lighter, festive even, befitting the arrival of a supersized celeb in a party-hearty town. As Shaq got prodded and probed and MRI'd in Coral Gables last Thursday, passersby stared into the windows at Doctors Hospital, photographers hid in bushes and a news helicopter hovered overhead. Before heading to L.A. for the weekend, O'Neal did give South Florida a dose of Shaq-yak. He said that he wants to finish his career in Miami; that he had been thinking about buying a house near there anyway because he likes to take his kids on boat rides in the Atlantic; that facing the Eastern Conference centers, "outside of [ Indiana's] Jermaine O'Neal, is not going to be that difficult for me"; and that he sees himself being competitive for five or six more years. "Buy tickets," he told a group of fans, "and be ready to roll."
Yes, it's the summer of Shaq, and the living is easy. But not for Bryant. Between these two superstars, who perhaps flew too high too fast to enjoy the ride, right now it is assuredly less trying to be O'Neal. But judgment day between the lines will come for the Diesel, too, because the Heat didn't acquire him just to sell jerseys or jazz up the scene at Liquid. Together, O'Neal and Bryant prospered, but their partnership could not endure. Will they ever prosper apart?