Shaquille O'Neal Once Slapped Kobe Bryant. Here's Why

Shaquille O'Neal and the late Kobe Bryant are frequently mentioned as two of the greatest basketball players of their generation. Both were hyper-talented, charismatic individuals who dominated the game at their respective positions; O'Neal was a monster in the paint who combined immense size and strength with surprising quickness, while Bryant was arguably the closest thing the NBA had to the "next Michael Jordan," a high-flying shooting guard who could take over a game at a moment's notice. But great as these two Hall of Famers were during their playing days, they were two longtime teammates who, despite their best efforts (or lack thereof) to get along, just couldn't stand each other.

Much has been said about how the current Los Angeles Lakers' poor chemistry led to their failure to make the 2022 playoffs despite boasting a lineup led by superstars LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. But the Lakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s won three straight titles behind the superstar duo of Bryant and O'Neal, both of whom were so constantly at each other's throats for most of their eight years teaming together. Although there are many incidents that come to mind as examples of how tense things were between the two would-be legends, there is one that stands out because it actually involved physical violence — to be specific, O'Neal angrily slapping Bryant in the middle of a heated altercation.

O'Neal was getting fed up by Bryant's perceived selfishness

The incident in question took place early in January 1999, just as the NBA and its players' union were about to end a protracted stalemate and agree to the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement (via CNN Money). During the lockout, many NBA players kept themselves busy through pickup games in their area; these gatherings were ostensibly informal but nonetheless competitive at times. But for the Los Angeles Lakers, the real competition was between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as the veteran center and still-teenaged shooting guard were vying for alpha dog status within the Purple and Gold.

As explained by Jeff Pearlman in his book "Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty," O'Neal was getting tired of dealing with Bryant's supposedly me-first attitude on and off the court. Bryant, meanwhile, made it clear from day one that he wasn't going to be treated like a kid despite joining the NBA straight out of high school. And it allegedly didn't matter to him that Shaq was considered a leader in the Los Angeles locker room. "[Lakers general manager] Jerry West wanted that, Shaq wanted that," L.A. Times sportswriter J.A. Adande told Pearlman (via ESPN). "But Kobe always bristled at that. He was no man's little brother."

While Bryant wasn't with the Lakers to make friends, O'Neal took a different approach to things, as Pearlman wrote. He told the author that he "wanted a relationship that he wasn't really interested in." That set the stage for the confrontation between the two Lakers stars at a pickup game at Southwest College in Los Angeles.

Shaq slapped Kobe after an extended altercation over who was the man on the Lakers

As related by Jeff Pearlman in the pages of "Three-Ring Circus," Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant started getting chippy with each other during the Southwest College pickup game when O'Neal repeatedly called questionable fouls after missing a shot. This allegedly annoyed Bryant to the point that he told O'Neal to "just play," but Shaq wasn't having any of it. "One more comment like that and I slap the s*** out of you," the big man was quoted as saying. 

Not long after, Bryant scored on an acrobatic drive against O'Neal and celebrated not with glee, but with angst and defiance, yelling that the Lakers were his team, not Shaq's. "He wasn't talking about the pickup team," said journeyman center Olden Polynice, who attended the game in hopes of catching the attention of management and securing a free-agent contract with Los Angeles. "He was talking about the Lakers." As Pearlman further narrated, Bryant and O'Neal proceeded to scream and cuss at each other, with O'Neal calling the Lakers his team and Bryant saying that the veteran was not a leader. "I will get your a** traded," Shaq reportedly countered. "Not a problem."

While cooler heads intervened and the game resumed, tensions continued to simmer between Bryant and O'Neal. After Kobe scored on yet another drive to the hoop, taunting Shaq as he ran down the court, the All-Star center menacingly reiterated his earlier warning about slapping the third-year guard. Bryant defied O'Neal's warning by swearing at the big guy, and for that, he got a hard slap on the face for his troubles.

The slap set the stage for a contentious relationship amid championship glory

After the slap that was heard around Southwest College, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal went at it again, and several players, including Olden Polynice and Lakers backup big man Corie Blount, attempted to pull the two stars apart. It was only when O'Neal's bodyguard, Jerome Crawford, walked on the court that everyone thankfully settled down. "They were just two alpha males who couldn't coexist," Polynice recalled (via ESPN). "Shaq's mindset was, 'This is my team.' Kobe's mindset was, 'Nobody's gonna punk me.' You can't have two alpha males. It doesn't work."

When O'Neal and Bryant joined the Lakers in 1996, the former via free agency and the latter as that year's 13th overall draft pick, O'Neal hoped to serve as a guiding hand to the rookie. But a few years after the slap, with the Lakers in the middle of what would be a championship three-peat for the organization, both men were very much at odds with each other. Kobe had gripes with Shaq — among many other players — because he supposedly didn't have the same level of dedication. Shaq, on the other hand, felt that Bryant was a bully off-court and a ball-hog on-court. But that's just scratching the surface of an infamously volatile relationship as teammates that ended when O'Neal left Los Angeles in the summer of 2004 and was traded to the Miami Heat.