- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers will open the season Tuesday night at home with all four of their future Hall of Famers starting against the Dallas Mavericks ... but nothing even close to total harmony.
O'Neal and Bryant seemed to be interacting comfortably Sunday on the practice floor, sharing the ball freely during an afternoon workout. Then they traded nasty verbal jabs after the session -- arguably their harshest comments since L.A.'s second championship season -- all stemming from O'Neal's suggestion Friday night in Las Vegas that Bryant "should probably look to be more of a passer until he gets his legs strong."
Bryant, recovering from offseason knee and shoulder surgeries, didn't welcome the suggestion, saying: "I definitely don't need advice on how to play my game."
Not even advice from O'Neal?
"Definitely not," Bryant continued. "I know how to play my guard spot. He can worry about the low post, and I'll worry about the [perimeter]."
When apprised of Bryant's reaction, O'Neal lashed out harder.
"As we start this new season, we want [expletive] done right," Shaq said. "If you don't like it, then you can opt out next year. As long as it's my team, then I'll voice my opinion. If you don't like it, then opt out."
That was a reference to Bryant's plan to exercise an option in his contract at season's end and test the free-agent market next summer, a stance Bryant has said he won't change in the wake of his felony sexual assault charge in Colorado.
Asked to clarify his "my team" remark, O'Neal added: "Everybody knows that. You [media] guys may give it to [Bryant] like you've given him everything else his whole lifetime, but this is the Diesel's ship. So ... if you ain't right [physically], don't be trying to go out there and get right on our expense. Use the people out there, then when you get right you [can] do what you do."
Not since the middle of the 2001-02 season -- the second of L.A.'s three consecutive championships -- have O'Neal and Bryant sparred in the press like this. Their relationship seemed to blossom into friendship during the third championship and also appeared to survive last season's 11-19 start and subsequent crash out of the playoffs with a second-round loss to San Antonio.
Throughout this first month back to work, however, there have been thinly veiled hints from O'Neal that problems have resurfaced, starting from the veterans' first day of training camp in Hawaii. Bryant did not fly on the Lakers' team charter and reported to camp a day late. O'Neal said at the time that "the full team is here," leading some to speculate that he preferred to play this season without the distractions attached to Bryant's court case.
Days later, explaining why he was sitting out an exhibition game with a sore left heel, O'Neal said: "I want to be right [in the regular season] for Derek, Karl and Gary.'' He was referring to Derek Fisher and new teammates Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- and O'Neal ommitted Bryant's name from the conversation more than once.
Malone and Payton, by contrast, have publicly supported Bryant as strongly as anyone in Lakers circles. But even Payton has urged Bryant to ease his way back into the team flow, after Bryant fatigued quickly and shot poorly in the second half of the Lakers' final two exhibition games.
Eyebrows were also raised when Bryant, for Thursday's exhibition in Anaheim against the Clippers, rode his motorcycle to and from the game instead of riding on the team bus.
Yet O'Neal, when pressed, insisted that the Lakers can play through any problems he's having with Bryant.
"I don't really worry about that," O'Neal said when asked about the state of the relationship. "I'm here to do a job. ... If he's open, I'm going to give it to him. If I'm open, I expect him to give it to me. I don't care about [expletive] else he does, and I know he don't care [expletive] else I do."
What's clear is that Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who spoke to reporters before his stars started volleying barbs, has his first real challenge of the season, less than 48 hours before the season opener. And it's right in his own locker room, not in a Colorado courtroom.
Asked about how he plans to play against the Mavericks on Tuesday night, Bryant said: "No change in my game whatsoever."
Said O'Neal: "Just ask Karl and Gary why they came here. One person, not two. One. Period. ... I'm not telling [Bryant] how to play his position. I'm telling him how to play team ball."
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss