Shaq screamed for attention

Updated: July 13, 2004, 5:06 PM ET
By Scott Howard-cooper | Special to ESPN.com

The Detroit Pistons are deserving champions. No question. They outplayed the Lakers, outhustled the Lakers and out-teamed the Lakers.

Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
Phil Jackson, left, and Shaquille O'Neal lost the Lakers' power struggle to Kobe Bryant.
But they did not put that banana peel outside Staples Center.

No matter what, the Lakers were Destination: Implosion. Phil Jackson was going to leave, Shaquille O'Neal was going to be shopped, Gary Payton was going to bristle. Because Kobe Bryant wanted it to happen. Well, all except the Payton part. That was going to happen anyway.

These last weeks have been like getting a tornado warning. You know it's bearing down with a rumble and still can't do anything to stop it. In a Lakers season in which there was no such thing as predictable, this had become inevitable. A lopsided series against Detroit -- a clutch Bryant shot away from being a sweep -- merely made it a crash landing that seemed to demand a breakup, saving L.A. from having to answer questions about dismantling a defending champion but not from having to answer to Kobe and his desires to live free of Jackson and O'Neal.

Shaq wanted a trade? Uh, OK.

The demand came after the Lakers said they were open to trading him. If general manager Mitch Kupchak, smart enough not to misspeak at such a critical juncture and typically close to the vest, allowed that much, that he would be willing to listen to offers for a dominating center, they were more open than Hugh Hefner. Even in the worst of times that had come before, mostly between O'Neal and Bryant and occasionally with Jackson stoking the wars, Kupchak, rightly, had said he would not so much as entertain offers for either star, and now here he was with a public pronouncement to bring it on.

Kupchak was being honest, but brought more flowers and chocolates to Bryant. The Lakers promised they would never again have eyes for another.

O'Neal? He was trying to get out in front of the story. He was spinning. He was responding, not dictating.

The Lakers' reaction said everything.

Because they said nothing.

Buss had already made up his mind to side with Bryant and deal O'Neal, a gamble that became apparent in retrospect as L.A. made no move to pacify Shaq. It's a shell game. Shaq was answering when there was never a question. Just as Shaq had spent countless months picking at Kupchak, mostly out of the frustration of a lack of contract extension, when, in the real world, Kupchak wasn't to blame. He was fronting for the owner, an employee carrying out the wishes of Boss Buss.

It's the same thing with the coach. When Buss and Jackson met amid the rubble days after the Finals, ostensibly to discuss the future, there was no discussion. Buss swiftly told him it was time to part. Jackson has since said he saw it coming for months, aware that conflict with Bryant would do him in, but there was no uncertainty as the playoffs unfolded. The Lakers could have won and Jackson still could have stayed on the parade float all the way to Montana.

Losing to the Pistons showed there had to be changes, but wanting to keep Bryant meant there would be anyway. He was about to become a free agent, giving him the hammer. He was the Buss favorite in the way that Magic Johnson had been a generation before, younger than O'Neal and better at staying in shape and, therefore, a smarter financial investment for a mega-contract. Even with the possibility of prison. Kobe was the one who waited to hit the open market and proclaimed publicly, despite wandering eyes, that he hoped things would work out so he would stay. Shaq was the one who showed up Buss by screaming during exhibition games for more money and dinged Kupchak.

By the end of the season, O'Neal's pride had been cranked to full volume. It was no different than previous contract negotiations, when his requests were driven by the need to exceed what Alonzo Mourning or some other player got. One big difference now: Bryant was about to become a free agent.

Kobe was the one who waited to hit the open market and proclaimed publicly, despite wandering eyes, that he hoped things would work out so he would stay. Shaq was the one who showed up Buss by screaming during exhibition games for more money and dinged Kupchak.
What timing. O'Neal had waited years for golden boy Bryant to fall on his sword. When it finally happened in a way that no one could have imagined, with serious charges and a private life being uncovered, Shaq stomped louder than ever as if to ensure the spotlight still found him. Rather than reclining with his feet up and cruelly watching Bryant take a header from the pedestal, O'Neal screamed for a new contract and re-started the inner-team power struggle.

"He acts like it doesn't bother him, but it does," one O'Neal friend said early in the season of Bryant getting so much attention, no matter the reason. "He's got a personality. But Kobe's got an effervescent personality. That flair. Shaq doesn't have the same personality. He doesn't try to impress people the same way. So he says some stupid things. But I think it does bother him."

Instead of stepping back.

"Let (Bryant) take it?" the friend said. "Sure. But it's ego."

Just like now. He gets the chance to return to Florida, which had always interested him even after calling Orlando a dried-up pond on the way out of town, but everyone knows Bryant won the final duel and got his way in the end. He had free agency and he had the owner, and that's a lot more than having a trade demand.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who writes for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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