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O'Neal knows too well about celebrity divorce

1/16/2001

Doesn't matter if the degree really was completed in the field of "crayon biology," as Shaquille O'Neal likes to joke. He's a recent college graduate. Which means he's officially a smart guy.

Trust us.

The Big Magic Marker understands psychology and knows more history than he'll ever admit. The Dynamics of Superstar Relations? Shaq could teach that course.

That's why, in this cyberspace, we're convinced Shaq will eventually forge another uneasy but workable truce with Kobe Bryant, maybe even in time to win another championship in June. Because, if anyone in the NBA is schooled on the benefits and perils of celebrity divorce, it's O'Neal. He might never love Kid Kobe, but, deep down, Shaq is too smart not to realize that he can't leave him, either. Or let Bryant bolt.

O'Neal, you see, has already dissolved the Tandem Of The Millennium once before. Amazingly, he emerged from the breakup with a co-star even better than a healthy Penny Hardaway. Again, trust us: Shaq is too sharp not to see the obvious.

That there's zero chance he'd be so lucky a second time.

"It would be the hugest mistake of their lives," Hardaway says of Shaq and Kobe going Splitsville.

Sadly, it happens all the time in today's NBA. Big-name couples that don't make it are as common as garish headbands and rookies who can't play. Stephon Marbury left Kevin Garnett. Tracy McGrady spurned Vince Carter. Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse were separated by their bosses, as were Chris Webber and Juwan Howard ... and Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

As for O'Neal, he ditched Hardaway on his own. It was the Olympic summer of 1996 and Shaq vaulted to Hollywood in free agency for a seven-year deal worth $120 million. Many observers were stunned that Shaq would actually sever a partnership that reached the NBA Finals within two years, but it proved a shrewd gamble. Hardaway, in Orlando and Phoenix, hasn't been able to get his body right.

And in L.A., O'Neal's housewarming gift -- courtesy of Jerry West's draft-day heist just a couple weeks earlier -- was an 18-year-old life partner named Kobe Bryant.

Four seasons later, after repeatedly failing to live up to expectations and occasionally trading shoves on a practice court, Shaq and Kobe won it all together. They learned to tolerate each other just enough that, going into the new season, no one could argue that one roster boasted the game's two most fantastic players. A duo that should have every opportunity to be dynastic, so long as the principles avoid injury.

As a big-and-small union, they are sized to be more special Michael and Scottie in Chicago. Maybe even more dangerous than their purple-and-gold predecessors, Magic and Kareem, since you don't need to be as deep as the Showtime Lakers were to collect a string of rings now.

All of that, though, is predicated on a long-term relationship, and these two have a Shaq-sized problem. In this dynamic, there is no Scottie The Sidekick. No obvious candidate to defer to the dribbling deity. Both parties have MVP talent, and considerable amounts of stubborn pride.

It's unfathomable to think of one or the other getting traded, but, at times, it's almost as tough to imagine Shaq or Kobe giving in.

They complied for lengthy stretches last season and wound up halting LA's 12-year title drought. But that was before O'Neal's free-throw woes sank to new lows, and before Bryant hit another peak in his Jordanesque development, widening the gulf between the stars. And the resentment indeed goes all the way back to the start, 1996-97, when Bryant immediately became the fans' favorite. O'Neal could be regularly heard in the Lakers' locker room singing "Showboat Is Our Future," to the tune of "We Are The World."

Well, the future is here and the singing has stopped. O'Neal has been openly sulky in recent weeks, and nowhere near the ravenous defender/rebounder Phil Jackson cultivated last season. Bryant, we know, is happy to function in isolation, convinced that nothing will prevent him from becoming the greatest player of all-time. So why stop to apologize to The Big Guy?

"With Shaq, you have to let him know that he's the man," Hardaway said Saturday, insisting that he always did. "You have to do that with him.

"I don't think [a breakup] will happen, but Shaq might force it if it gets to where he thinks he's being disrespected," Hardaway continued. "He'll ask for a trade."

Both entities already have, of course, which is about the only activity they've done in unison since putting the Pacers away. Getting them to get along in current circumstances might be the biggest challenge of Jackson's incense-burning existence. A visit or two from Consultant West, who put this dream tag team together, wouldn't hurt, but it's clearly going to take more than pep talks from Phil, Jerry and Magic.

It's mainly going to be a DIY job: Do It Yourself. Shaq and Kobe have to take the lead roles in the peace process, or else the Lakers will remain vulnerable, especially defensively. Vulnerable and, thus, eminently beatable.

Yet when some of us remember how smart the LSU grad can be -- and how the new Penny is a 22-year-old Philly kid who's fluent in Italian -- there's an urge to believe that both kids are wise enough to sort this out. Shaq and Kobe aren't Zen men yet, but it doesn't take a Buddhist to figure out that sharing beats a break-up here. Nowhere on MJ's green Earth is the grass more plush. If they really believe otherwise -- if O'Neal or Bryant truly thinks something better out there exists -- Hardaway is just a phone call away.

Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.