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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Shaq and Kobe, for the last time -- honest

Their reunion in the NBA All-Star game may finally be the end of their long story.

February 15, 2009|MARK HEISLER

FROM PHOENIX — Not them again.

OK, presenting for the very last time -- no, really -- the greatest, most entertaining, most controversial, not to mention, the most overexposed tandem in basketball and possibly world history. . . .

Aw, you guessed it.

Yes, it's Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, thrown together by yet another twist of fate.

Happily, fate may finally be out of twists. Barring another great season by O'Neal (long shot), or a trade bringing him back to the Lakers (no way, as long as Bryant has breath in his body), tonight's game could be it.

Revising history as only he can, O'Neal has now said that their feud was a marketing ploy so many times, in so many ways, people may even believe it.

There's an old baseball joke about the ballplayer walking down the street with his girlfriend, when they run into his wife.

"Who are you going to believe," he asks his wife, "me or your eyes?"

That's like Shaq.

In Friday's media session, O'Neal, croaking like Don Corleone after waking up with a cold but determined to keep going, noted that he and Kobe are "still talked about to this day, and I haven't played with him for four or five years, so my marketing worked."

The two are now good friends, who stay in touch, text messaging back and forth.

"We talk a lot," said O'Neal. "All the time . . . 'Good game. How you doing? How's the kids?' Simple stuff."

Or not. Bryant looked surprised to hear they talk all the time.

"Um yeah," Kobe said, tentatively, "we talked over the summer."

And texting back and forth?

"Yeah, we've texted before. I'm evasive on that subject. I don't want to get into it. We have a good relationship, though."

Several Shaq questions later, Bryant shut it down. "It wasn't a fun time for me," he said, "so I'm not about to revisit it."

This was Kobe on his best behavior, in front of the cameras. Wednesday in Salt Lake City, a local writer asked the standard question about playing with O'Neal and Bryant exclaimed, "Are you kidding me?" narrowing his eyes, like Clint Eastwood, or Kobe, before apologizing and answering.

So, it's safe to conclude Bryant has hard feelings.

He's entitled to them. When O'Neal left the Lakers, he took advantage of his position, at the height of his popularity, on a good team in Miami where he would win his fourth title, to belittle Bryant at every opportunity.

O'Neal was entitled to feel hurt at the way things ended. Although he has never conceded it, it cut him to his core when the Lakers showed him the door. He blamed Bryant for his exit, but so did Phil Jackson.

Bryant did not run O'Neal off -- Kobe thought he was leaving until the last moment -- but his disinclination to play with O'Neal was a factor in the Lakers' decision.

It was like everything else that happened in their eight seasons: good or bad, it was mutual. So, it's nice they're back together one last time.

Bryant doesn't go on about all the titles they could have won, as O'Neal does, but you can imagine what went through his mind when they went 34-48 after O'Neal left.

One day, both will look back on their feud and say, "What was that about?"

It's not one of O'Neal's inventions that they were the greatest duo ever, compared by Boston General Manager Danny Ainge to Wilt Chamberlain playing with Michael Jordan.

Unfortunately, everything Shaq and Kobe did was a compromise, as it might have been for Wilt and Mike.

Bryant and O'Neal were devastating on pick-and-rolls -- throwing the ball to O'Neal was like tossing it on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- but Jackson said he couldn't get them to run it.

As opposed to setting a screen and hoping Bryant threw him the ball, O'Neal preferred to post up and demand it.

Years later, everything has changed. As Jackson said Friday, "The last man standing writes the history."

That's Bryant, who's now the one at his peak, on a team that could win him his fourth title, and perhaps more.

So, if goofing around together one last time helps them both put the past behind them, it'll be really nice.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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