Shaquille O'Neal Wasn't The Only Star Kobe Bryant Had A Tense Relationship With

For many a basketball fan, it still boggles the mind as to how the Los Angeles Lakers were able to three-peat from 1999 to 2002 despite how their two biggest stars were seemingly at odds with each other more often than they weren't. Those two stars, of course, were Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and their long-running feud was the stuff of legend, packed with more drama than your typical episode of "The Young and the Restless" or "General Hospital." On one end, you had someone who entered the NBA as a teenage prodigy straight out of high school, a young man with an extraordinarily competitive drive — a "Mamba Mentality," if you may. On the other end, you had someone who was already established as a superstar, a fun-loving sort who let that side of his personality show in his movie and commercial appearances but was nonetheless considered a locker room leader.

Indeed, it was a combative relationship for the most part, one where their arguments even turned physical. But Shaquille O'Neal wasn't the only high-profile Laker who Kobe Bryant didn't get along with. There was another notable teammate who Kobe beefed with (see what we did there), and while the tension between them started after said teammate played his final game for the Lakers, the drama was well-documented. Furthermore, it's still not sure whether they actually made peace before Bryant's untimely death.

Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant were actually teammates for one season

Karl Malone may be best known to basketball fans for the nearly two decades he spent with the Utah Jazz, where he perfected the art of the pick-and-roll with longtime teammate John Stockton. However, the Hall of Fame power forward wrapped up his career by playing one season with the Los Angeles Lakers. This 2003-04 Lakers lineup had the makings of a superteam, as it also featured Gary Payton at point guard — as well as the infamously contentious superstar duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

All those four players were future Basketball Hall of Famers, and they still had Phil Jackson as their head coach, hoping to add to the plethora of titles he won while handling the reins with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. Unfortunately, they were easily defeated in five games by Larry Brown's "Play the Right Way" Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, wrapping up a tumultuous season that saw more Shaq vs. Kobe shenanigans, Payton having trouble adjusting to Jackson's system, and Malone dealing with injuries as his illustrious NBA career almost ended with a whimper (via Bleacher Report). 

It was a chaotic season, to be sure, but while Bryant spent much of the 2003-04 season quarreling with O'Neal (what else is new), it seemed that he got along quite well with Malone. That is, until "The Mailman" allegedly said some things that rubbed Bryant the wrong way.

Malone allegedly came on to Bryant's wife during a Lakers game

By November 2004, Shaquille O'Neal had moved to the Miami Heat, Kobe Bryant was now the Lakers' undisputed alpha male, and Karl Malone, while not yet officially retired, was months removed from his last NBA game. It was during a Lakers game that month where Malone allegedly tried to hit on Kobe's wife, Vanessa Bryant, as related to ESPN by player agent (and future Lakers general manager) Rob Pelinka.

"Karl and his son were at the game sitting in the front row," Pelinka said, retelling what he'd been told about the incident. "Vanessa was on the cell phone talking to Karl's wife, Kay, and Vanessa said that her son looked bored. Kay told her to call Karl to have her son join her in her seats. Kay gave Vanessa Karl's cell number and she called him. When she called, Karl's response was, 'Why don't you come over here and sit next to me and give me a big hug?' Vanessa said, 'Why? For what?' And Karl replied, 'If you do that it will be on the cover of every magazine in the country.'"

With Vanessa taken aback by these remarks, she allegedly didn't know how to respond, and when Malone asked her if she likes him, she said she does because he's married to one of her close friends. After Malone allegedly asked Vanessa if she can keep a secret, she fired back by telling him that a) she's married, b) he's also married, and c) he's old enough to be her father. She ended the conversation soon after, but after the game ended, Malone purportedly made another disturbing comment when Vanessa, noticing that he was wearing a cowboy hat, asked what he was hunting. "I'm hunting for young Mexican girls," he was quoted as saying.

Bryant felt 'betrayed' by Malone following the incident

When word of Karl Malone's supposed inappropriate comments got back to Kobe Bryant, he was understandably quite upset. "Kobe and Karl had a true friendship, much more than teammates," Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, told ESPN. "Their wives are quite friendly as well. Kobe has told me that he feels very hurt and betrayed by what has happened." Bryant himself commented on the matter, telling reporters in December 2004 that he was very sure that it wasn't a simple case of a misunderstanding between his wife and his former teammate. "My wife wasn't going to stand for it," the Lakers star continued. "She felt uncomfortable being around him to the point that she felt she had to call his wife and tell her."

As Pelinka further related to ESPN, Vanessa Bryant told her husband about the incident with Malone while they were on their way home from the previous month's game. When Kobe called Malone, "The Mailman" purportedly didn't deny making the remarks, but didn't seem to show much remorse either, simply shrugging things off by telling his ex-teammate, "You know me, man." Kobe then told Malone to stay away from his wife. (Per Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, the power forward did apologize to Kobe and Vanessa.) 

For his part, Malone declined to talk about Bryant's accusations, telling USA Today, "This is a Hollywood soap opera, and I'm not going to be a star in another Bryant soap opera."

Malone offered to settle the beef with a fistfight over a decade later

More than a decade later, it appeared that there was still a lot of tension between Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone. Speaking to HuffPost Live in 2015, Malone stressed to interviewer Marc Lamont Hill that he didn't have anything against Bryant despite the way their friendship ended back in 2004. He did, however, make an interesting offer to the Los Angeles Lakers icon for them to settle their beef once and for all — a fistfight between both men so that they could sort things out old-school. 

"It's a standing offer," Malone told Hill. "Look, I don't want no trouble. I don't have a problem. People say whatever they want to say and that's great. I'm 6-9, 272 [pounds] to be exact. I'm not hard to find. I don't want no trouble. But if something got to go down, I'm not playing fair." While the fight never happened, it's not clear whether the two former teammates did settle their differences in a more civilized manner.

When Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in January 2020, Malone was among those who paid tribute to the would-be Hall of Famer. "I am at a loss for words," he tweeted. "Kobe and Gianna you will never be forgotten. What a blessing to see your [sic] impact you have had in this world, Kobe. Prayers for the Bryant family. Rest In Peace, little brother and Gigi."