Tuesday, April 15, 2003 Updated: May 31, 2:17 PM ET
The Odd Couple
By Bill Simmons Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This column appears in the April 28 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
If Vince McMahon ran the NBA, the Shaq-Kobe alliance would have ended abruptly last June, in the locker room, as they celebrated their third championship together. Imagine the stunning, WWE-style turn of events: Kobe inexplicably cracks a steel chair over Shaq's bald noggin; teammates react in horror, Kobe dances over Shaq's motionless body. Through it all, Bob Costas screams, "Nooooo!!! What is Kobe doing? My god, Kobe Bryant has lost his mind!"
If Kobe would've hit Shaq over the back of the head with that bottle, things would be much more interesting.
That single chair shot could have solved everything. Kobe would have switched teams-to New York, of course -- vowing to dominate the league for years to come. Shaq would have counter-vowed revenge, dedicating his career to destroying Kobe and the Knicks. And they'd have met twice during every season and then again in the Finals, each time to boffo TV ratings. Everybody wins.
Obviously, that didn't happen. So the question remains: Who wants to watch the two best players in the world share the spotlight on the same basketball team? Instead of Crockett and Tubbs, they're more like Crockett and Crockett, two alpha dogs tugging on the same bone. So far, they've managed to settle their issues by playoff time -- like two bullies calling a truce so they can split everyone's lunch money. Sometimes Shaq takes over, sometimes Kobe does, but neither seems happy about taking a back seat. Their improbable relationship contrasts with every success story in basketball history. Doesn't someone have to emerge as The Guy? How can the Lakers keep winning like this? Is the rest of the league really this crummy?
This year's team stumbled out of the gate like a post-Face/Off Travolta movie, with Shaq nursing his faulty big toe and Kobe unfairly bashed for shooting too much. Years of shaky front-office management were finally taking their toll: A team can only endure so many Samaki Walker and Devean George signings. Now, with Shaq and Kobe each going for 30 every night, everyone is again brushing over their little episodes -- like Kobe gunning for that scoring record in February, shooting so much that Shaq and his disgruntled teammates stopped running over midcourt after awhile, like the human teammates in Teen Wolf. But the fact remains: These things shouldn't happen on quality teams.
This town isn't big enough for the two of them.
Except for the first stages of Kobe's dramatic scoring binge, there's been a joylessness in LA this season. Watching Shaq and Kobe is like watching an old married couple struggle to remember why they liked each other in the first place. Maybe 250-plus games over the past three years have taken their toll; rarely, if ever, does it seem like these guys enjoy playing together. The triangle seems tired, the Kobe-Shaq dynamic seems tired, everything seems tired. When Kobe sinks a game-winning shot, his teammates react like they have to celebrate or they'll get fined.
The Lakers' demise feels inevitable, like watching an episode of Behind the Music and waiting for the band-self-destructs segment. Unlike other NBA dynasties, these guys always seem vulnerable, a makeshift champion too top-heavy for the long haul. Remember that the 2000 Blazers blew a 15-point lead against them, and the Kings squandered so many chances last spring? Eight good players should always beat two great ones: The Lakers lucked out twice. It won't happen again; there's no third above-average player on the roster anymore.
So get ready for LA's not-so-shocking fall this spring, followed by some finger-pointing, general griping-and the party line "Kobe and Shaq are fine. We just need to get them better teammates."
It's all gotten too ridiculous. Flip a coin, draw straws, but do something. One of them has to go. It's not like you're splitting up Jordan and Pippen here; these are two superstars who never did anything but co-exist uneasily, an NBA version of Regis and Kathy Lee. Shaq and Kobe each needs his own team. Dr. Dre had to leave NWA, Shawn Michaels had to leave Marty Janetty, Frasier Crane had to leave Boston and Shaq and Kobe have to leave each other. Enough is enough.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to mail a steel chair to Kobe.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.