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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Updated: July 14, 6:59 PM ET
Big breakup, big mistake

By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com

No, the grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence.

Sorry, Shaq and Kobe. You've just both made a mistake you'll regret for the rest of your lives. At least if we're to believe, as you guys always say, you're about winning.

No two men, perhaps since Caesar and Brutus, could have accomplished more by staying together and remaining working partners. Though perhaps it is inevitable that dynasties end and that jealousies and rivalries and ego, greed and ambition are fated forces that are too much for the human mind and soul to combat.

What is happiness? These questions are best answered by philosophers like Thoreau, Plato, Confuscius, Spinoza, Kierkegaard and Phil Jackson.

If happiness is winning a championship and being part of a great team, then Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have committed blunders for the ages.

Perhaps O'Neal will win a championship with the Miami Heat. But are the chances better if he were playing with Bryant? Sure, Dwyane Wade looks like he'll become a heck of a player. But I haven't heard comparisons to Bryant quite yet. Even O'Neal would admit he's not quite what he was. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances this past season. There was Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who needed more shots than the retinue of role players who'd teamed with O'Neal and Bryant through three consecutive NBA championships. So O'Neal's scoring average hit a career low. He was very good in the playoffs, but not nearly as great as he'd been. He is no longer the kind of player to load a team on his back and carry it wherever he wants it to go.

Donnie Walsh, the talented longtime director of the Indiana Pacers, always used to laugh when people asked him to explain why the Western Conference was better than the Eastern Conference. Walsh said the West was better because it had the best player, O'Neal, and probably had the second best player in Bryant. Take them away and that, really, was the difference. Now the defending champion and the most dominant player are in the East. Will the NBA be asked to reseed the playoffs so a Western Conference team has a chance to win a championship? Just kidding. But that scale just tipped way back to the East, and not just because O'Neal and his little weight problems are going to be sitting on the Eastern side of it.

It's always easy to dismiss losers.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
Shaquille O'Neal, left, and Kobe Bryant will find out how tough it is to win a title on your own.
The Lakers lost to the Pistons in the NBA Finals, but they were not losers.

Even though it was a 4-1 margin, this was not only a Lakers team that went through what was then considered easily the better conference, but which went into the Finals with its power forward, effectively, unable to play and its backup guard and top sixth man also limited. Add to that the intrigue of the inevitable splintering, and it's easy to see why the Lakers lost. But they weren't far away from winning, and a healthy, more cooperative team would be the favorite against the East's best, no matter who it is.

Jackson had seen this coming almost from the beginning. Yes, Phil could see the future on occasion, too.

Not that this one wasn't hard to divine.

Jackson had gone through the "It's my team. No, it's my team. No, it's my team. No, it's MY team" thing with Bryant and O'Neal during the 2000-01 season and resolved it pretty well. At least they did in putting together a historic 15-1 run through the playoffs. It was Shaq's time and he was winning his second of three straight Finals MVPs. Jackson knew it was Shaq's time, but he also knew time always won, especially with the big guys. After he was 30, Wilt never averaged 30 points again and only was above 25 one season. After hitting 30, Bill Russell never again averaged more than 15 rebounds. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played a dozen more seasons after hitting 30 and averaged at least 25 points just twice.

Jackson knew it would be coming for O'Neal, and he began to talk to him about eventually turning it over to Kobe, doing, in effect, what Abdul-Jabbar did with Magic Johnson. Not that it was so voluntary, warm and fuzzy with Abdul-Jabbar. He resented Magic, but he also understood. He had a chance to still win and prolong his career if he let his pride and ego -- and there never was one any bigger -- go a little and allow Magic to step into the spotlight. Abdul-Jabbar won his last league MVP award in 1980. But he was on four championship teams after that. Kareem didn't like Magic being the star, but he understood.

Shaq and Kobe just don't get it.

Look, when O'Neal and Bryant were blasting away at one another at the beginning of last season, both were right. Shaq is lazy about practice and overweight and doesn't care all the time. Bryant is selfish and self-centered and condescending toward his teammates. So what. That doesn't describe half the rest of the NBA? Or most of corporate America?

People are about themselves. That's what great leadership is for -- to get them to work together toward a common goal. It's what separated Jackson from his peers. Well, that and the Native American paraphernalia and Zen garden in his living room, as well. But that's another story.

News flash! Players generally can't stand one another. This is not unique to Bryant and O'Neal. It goes on everywhere in every sport. What, like you're hugging your co-workers? Most people can't get away from them fast enough. Good friends don't make winning teams. Great talent does.

That's why the Lakers won. They had the best interior player in the game in O'Neal and the best perimeter player in the game in Bryant. There never has been a combination like that in the history of the NBA. Perhaps Magic and Kareem. But Kareem wasn't quite that dominant as Johnson matured, and Magic never was the best offensive force in the game. Not Russell and Bob Cousy. Not Wilt and any of his teammates. When he had Jerry West, Wilt was no longer the offensive force, no longer even among the top 10 scorers in the game. Mikan and Slater Martin?

And this was far from over. But like the clip from "Animal House" played in most arenas these days late in games, they did say when it was over.

Here are two guys who need one another and had so much going for each other. They were the perfect basketball complement, the ultimate Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside ... It's hard to fathom either equaling the success they shared.
Sure, Jerry Buss will get the blame, and sure he got tired of Shaq's money demands and injury vacations, but Shaq and Kobe broke this up.

No, they couldn't just get along, Rodney.

It's hard to even come up with anything like this, when pettiness and vainglory transcend success.

Perhaps the most recent example was Stephon Marbury's petulant exit from Minnesota. Though that was a "what could have been." Marbury and Kevin Garnett hadn't done anything together yet.

But the Lakers are done now. Not forever, because Bryant is that good -- good enough to carry a team from the backcourt to a championship. Michael Jordan did it. So did Isiah Thomas, though it took a long time and many, many moves. At 25, and assuming he is able to play after the trial, Bryant has time.

The Heat will be much closer now. But for how long? O'Neal is 32, and he'll have to do much more now with Miami's team stripped down to accommodate the trade. It may take a few years to build it back up and add the pieces to complement O'Neal. But then will he be able to do enough? Will Wade even become Magic as O'Neal becomes Kareem?

Here are two guys who need one another and had so much going for each other. They were the perfect basketball complement, the ultimate Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, the ideal guys to pass the baton and keep ahead of the field. Now both are back in the pack trying to poke their heads out front again. It's going to be difficult, not impossible, but it's hard to fathom either equaling the success they shared.

What a huge mistake they've both made by not only allowing it to happen, but ensuring that is has.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.