The NBA playoffs are winding down, and while that means there's less and less basketball to watch, it also means there's more time to read about basketball. So let's take a trip down memory lane to remember the time Shaquille O'Neal slapped Kobe Bryant at a pick-up game during the 1998 NBA lockout.
This isn't a new story, but veteran author Jeff Pearlman has a book coming out that goes into impressive detail on the incident, including perspective from former NBA veterans Olden Polynice, who was tasked with guarding O'Neal on that day, and Corie Blount. During the lockout, players would often congregate wherever they could find an open gym, and hold pick-up games to stay in shape and compete.
One day, O'Neal and Bryant -- who were in the early stages of what would become a bitter feud -- ended up at the same gym in Los Angeles, and on opposite teams. Like many altercations during informal basketball games, the fight between the two Lakers stars started over a dispute about foul calls.
It was just another run, until it was no longer just another run. As he was prone to do in pickup, O'Neal called a series of iffy fouls whenever he missed a shot.
"I'm tired of this s---," Bryant finally said. "Just play."
"One more comment like that," O'Neal snapped, "and I slap the s--- out of you."
A few possessions later, Bryant drove toward the rim, leaned into O'Neal's body, and scooped the ball beneath his raised arm and into the hoop. It was a pretty move, but nothing otherworldly.
"F--- you!" he screamed at O'Neal. "This is my team! My motherf---ing team!"
It felt edgy. Everything stopped. "He wasn't talking about the pickup team," Polynice recalled. "He was talking about the Lakers."
O'Neal wasn't having it. "No, motherf---er!" he screamed. "This is my team!"
"F--- you!" Bryant replied. "Seriously -- f--- you! You're not a leader. You're nothing!"
What did he just say?
"I will get your ass traded," O'Neal said. "Not a problem."
While O'Neal never made good on his promise to get Bryant traded -- in fact, O'Neal was the one moved during the inevitable break-up after the 2004 season -- he did follow through on his promise to "slap the s---" out of his young teammate.
Several of the participants stepped in to separate the two, and the game eventually continued. But it no longer felt even slightly relaxed or friendly. "We probably went up and down the court two more times," Polynice said. "Kobe goes to the basket, scores, screams at Shaq, 'Yeah, motherf---er! That s--- ain't gonna stop me!'"
O'Neal grabbed the ball in order to freeze action.
"Say another motherf---ing word," he said, staring directly at Bryant.
"Aw, f--- you," Bryant said. "You don't kn--"
O'Neal slapped Bryant across the face. Hard.
"His hands are huge," said Blount, who was playing in the game. "The noise was loud."
There was more screaming and swinging after that, as other players stepped in to separate the two combatants. Thankfully no other punches landed, because if there were, things would have ended badly for Bryant. In the words of Polynice, O'Neal was throwing a "I-want-to-kill-you-right-now punch."
Years later, the two discussed the events in a sit-down conversation, and though he took the worst of it that day, Bryant said it ultimately helped their relationship -- at least on the court.
"I'm looking at this and I'm saying 'man, he wants this thing. It affects him. It consumes him.' And then from that moment on I knew we spoke the same language."
Of course, winning titles only held things together for so long, and it was little surprise when the Lakers eventually had to break the toxic partnership up. As Polynice put it in his recollection of O'Neal and Bryant's relationship, "It never, ever works. Even when it does."
The Shaq and Kobe Lakers are one of the most well-covered teams in NBA history, but even if the fact that they didn't get along is generally understood by everyone, stories like this are still interesting because they show just how bad things got during those years. Knowing how much they despised each other at that time, it almost makes it more impressive that they were able to put things together enough on the court to complete a three-peat.