Notice how nothing is ever in the context of “we.” We as a team will win titles. We will both be remembered as the greatest Lakers ever. It wouldn’t be completely crazy to think that Bryant knew, or at least felt, that he would make a greater impact on the game, more specifically for the Lakers, than O’Neal ever would. Maybe Bryant was acknowledging that in order for him to be considered the best there ever was, he’d have to do it alone.
That’s Bryant’s mentality.
Guys like Bryant, like Jordan, don’t have natural rivals because they strive to create so much separation between themselves and the rest of their peers, there’s almost no point in making a comparison. Were there guys that matched up with Bryant at some point over the span of his career? Sure. Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady come to mind, but where are they now in comparison to Bryant? Even LeBron James, despite efforts by the league to conjure up a rivalry with Bryant, has never really lived up to the hype. It won’t until James wins a title, and even then, Bryant will likely retire with more titles than James, putting the kibosh on any potential rivalry.
Everyone pales in comparison to Bryant, whose type A personality drives him to a singular focus—winning. Not just winning, but winning at all costs.
That’s something O’Neal never understood. If he understood it, he wasn’t going to accept it as his own philosophy. O’Neal liked to have fun. In his world you could record an album in the off-season and win a championship the following June. You could get injured on the court and wait until you were back on company time to get it taken care of. Bryant on the other hand, viewed O’Neal’s escapades as a distraction, and counterproductive to what he was trying to achieve.
The brunt of O’Neal’s criticism of Bryant was generally in regards to his habits off the court, while Bryant was just the opposite. He took exception to the fact that O’Neal would show up to camp out of shape, that his potential was essentially wasted.
Then there’s the subject of titles. If you ask O’Neal, he’ll tell you that their partnership (had it worked out) would have resulted in seven-to-eight championships at least. Of course, that’s just O’Neal running his mouth on what could have been. In reality, that the Lakers were able to win three titles with both O’Neal and Bryant, is a testament to their professionalism, and mutual respect for each other as basketball players, not so much as individuals off the court.
When it all imploded in the 2003-04 season, it wasn’t just a result of Bryant’s on-going court battle in Colorado, or O’Neal’s demand for a contract extension. Both Bryant and O’Neal were walking on eggshells that entire season. O’Neal played with the uncertainty of whether the Lakers would continue to employ him or let him walk elsewhere. Perhaps he always knew his time in Los Angeles had an early termination date, that the over-confident Bryant would eventually become the leader of the team, with or without him.
Bryant may have barely passed O’Neal last night, but just like Bryant envisioned when he was a young player, their separation as far as Laker greats go, is far greater, and at this point insurmountable for O’Neal.