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Bryant-O'Neal rivalry focus of new season

November 02, 2004 12:35 IST
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The headline-grabbing rivalry between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant is likely to dominate the opening weeks of the NBA season that begins on Tuesday.

Despite winning three titles together, the former Los Angeles Lakers team mates have ensured that the focus is on who will have the last word in what has become a nasty public feud rather than who can win this season's crown.

Just moments after losing last year's final to the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers began to crumble with coach Phil Jackson indicating he would not return after leading his team to three titles (2000-2002) and four of the last five finals.

The dismantling escalated when Bryant issued a, "me or O'Neal" ultimatum to Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

O'Neal then demanded a trade and was shipped east to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a first round draft pick -- ending an eight-year partnership and one of the greatest one-two punches in NBA history.

Bryant starts the season without a sexual assault trial and the threat of prison hanging over his head, a new seven-year $137 million contract and a Lakers team he will call his own.

Across the country, Miami fans have renamed the Heat's stadium the "Love Shaq" and are talking about winning the championship and not dreaming about one.

Since the split, Bryant and O'Neal have sniped at each other through the media from opposite coasts, revealing the true depths of their bitterness.


"Everybody knows I was getting screwed by the young fella (Bryant)," O'Neal told Sports Illustrated. "I'm a 60 percent shooter and I have to beg for the ball. What the hell is that?

"I'd get open and the young fella wouldn't get it to me.

"It's going to be different now. I'm getting more passes from these guys in one day than I ever got (in Los Angeles) in eight years.

"Shaq ain't Shaq if he's averaging 20 points."

With O'Neal and Bryant out to prove a point, fans can expect to be treated to some of the greatest individual performances since Michael Jordan in his heyday.

One of the most eagerly anticipated dates on the NBA schedule has O'Neal's Heat taking on Bryant's Lakers on December 25 with television executives already predicting record ratings.

Rudy Tomjanovich has been brought in to replace Jackson but the Lakers will be Bryant's team as he steps out from O'Neal's enormous shadow and tries to earn a place among the sport's all-time greats.

Energised and slimmed down, a motivated O'Neal is a frightening prospect and sure to cause headaches for Eastern Conference coaches as they develop plans on how to defend the 7-foot 1-inch, 330-pounds center.

"I think Shaq is the one player in the league who causes every team to change from their normal defensive system and philosophy," Heat coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters. "You just can't play Shaq the same way you play everybody else"

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