How Kobe Bryant And Shaq’s Feud Caused The Lakers To Become ‘Dysfunctional’, According To Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on Players Only
(Image credit: Turner Broadcasting)

The Los Angeles Lakers have one of the most storied histories in the entirety of sports, though it’s not without its share of rough patches. One of the NBA franchise’s most tumultuous times came during the mid-2000s, which marked a feud between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The tension between the duo (who won three championships together) has been chronicled in detail on Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers (streamable with a Hulu subscription). Now, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – one of the show’s interview subjects – has shared some further insight into how the Bryant-O’Neal beef caused the team to become “dysfunctional” at that time. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have stopped playing with the Lakers in 1989, but the legendary center did still hang around during the early 2000s. At that time, Abdul-Jabbar would occasionally sit in on practices, as shown in archive footage presented in Legacy. On the heels of the show’s seventh and eighth episodes, Abdul-Jabbar treated fans to some behind-the-scenes details via his newsletter. When it came to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s feud, the hall of famer asserted that the dysfunction was partially the result of Shaq wanting his teammate to pass more:

Shaq wanted Kobe to pass more and Kobe didn’t care what Shaq thought. When your two most dominant players don’t get along, the team becomes dysfunctional. No one is happy, there’s no team stability, every game feels like a separate battleground rather than part of a flowing season.

Many likely remember just how much attention the Lakers received during that time. Though the two players had had disagreements throughout their time as teammates, things seemed to reach a head by the 2003-2004 NBA season. At the time, both all-stars had also entered a back-and-fourth of sorts as a result of comments they’d made to the media.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can definitely relate to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s experience more than most. Years ago, Abdul-Jabbar contended with the presence of a highly motivated younger player in Earvin “Magic” Johnson, when he was drafted by LA in 1979. However, the two seemed to have a mostly harmonious relationship over the course of the 10 years they played together. (They also won a total of five championships as a result.) When discussing Bryant and O’Neal, Abdul-Jabbar went on to say that the Black Mamba took issue with Shaq’s work ethic at the time:

The problem was that Kobe was obsessed with reaching his pinnacle as a player, so he stayed in the best shape all year around. But he saw Shaq as lacking commitment to the game and the team by allowing himself to get out of shape off-season and barely getting back in shape for the season. Because of that, Kobe lost respect for Shaq and Shaq lost all influence over Kobe.

While things were seemingly contentious between the two for a while, they ultimately patched things up during a lengthy interview in 2018. That reconciliation became even more meaningful following Kobe Bryant’s death at age 41 in 2020. Shaquille O’Neal was among the many to pay tribute to the star after his passing and honored Bryant again on the one-year anniversary of his passing. More recently, Shaq explained how he used to press Bryant’s buttons in order to motivate him. The Diesel also showed support for Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, amid her recent lawsuit over her husband and daughter’s deaths.

The dysfunction that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks of may have been tough for the Lakers organization at the time but, ultimately, things worked out for both stars and the organization as a whole. Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat in 2004 and went on to win a fourth championship, while Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to two additional NBA titles. But at the end of the day, what’s particularly comforting to know is that the two were eventually able to get past the drama.

Those who want more insight into the history of one of the NBA’s most esteemed teams can check out new episodes of Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers, which drop on Mondays as part of the 2022 TV schedule.

Erik Swann
Senior Content Producer

Covering superheroes, sci-fi, comedy, and almost anything else in film and TV. I eat more pizza than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.