After the Lakers’ bid to win four straight championships fell short with a second-round loss to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in 2003, the franchise appeared to solidify its chance of claiming another trophy when future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone elected to sign free-agent contracts far below their market value that summer in order to win the one honor that had eluded them—a title.
Their signings came less than two weeks after Lakers superstar guard Kobe Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a Colorado hotel employee and faced the possibility of life in prison if found guilty. He went on to spend the first half of the season flying back and forth from Colorado for court appearances.
Meanwhile, his feud with fellow superstar Shaquille O’Neal continued to simmer as they made critical public remarks about each other. Bryant also was planning to test free agency the following summer, while O’Neal pressed the Lakers for a hefty contract extension. On top of all that, discussions about a contract extension for coach Phil Jackson also had been tabled until after the season.
What follows is an oral history of the 2003-04 season of the Los Angeles Lakers—the first new-era super team, one that entered the season as the prohibitive favorite, but suffered an ignominious loss to a star-less Detroit Pistons squad to mark the end of a dynasty.
As Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Heisler says, “That season was when the tornado comes off the horizon and hits you right between the eyes. That was one of the all-time whacked-out seasons for the Lakers, which is one of the all-time whacked-out franchises.”
(Those quoted herein are identified by the positions they played or the jobs they held during the 2003-04 season.)
Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers center, 1996-2004: A lot of people ask me, what was my part in attracting Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the Lakers, and my answer is simple: I did it.
Mitch Kupchak, Lakers general manager, 2000-present: It was really unrealistic to think that we could get both Gary and Karl, because we were [over the cap]. Gary was represented by Aaron Goodwin and Karl was represented by Dwight Manley. But I remember getting a call from Dwight Manley after a couple of days to talk about Karl and he said something like, “Well, what if we could figure out a way to get both?”—because I told him we also needed help in the backcourt.
At the time, there were two exceptions, the mid-level and bi-annual. One was five-point-something million and the other was one-point something a year. Dwight basically said, after going back and forth, that Karl would take a two-year bi-annual exception. That would free up the mid-level for Gary. I called Aaron back and said, “What do you think if we could get both Gary and Karl?” He thought it was great. Dr. Buss had always loved both players. We just never thought L.A. was the kind of place Karl secretly wanted to play. We’d always heard that Gary wanted to be here.
Shaquille O’Neal: I was on the phone with those guys once or twice a week. Gary was a little bit easier job, because he was ready to get out of Seattle. The Karl Malone thing was a little tougher, but eventually I got it done.
John Black, vice president of public relations: We got a suite in a hotel in Westwood, the Marquis, the night we signed them. That was part of my responsibility, getting the hotel room and making sure there was a fax machine in it. Gary was in town with his agent. Karl was out of town. The timing and itinerary of the thing was important. We had to fax a contract to Karl and get it signed, then fax that to the league and get it approved and then do the same with Gary. He and his agent were going to come over at 9:01. It was all sort of choreographed. Up until then we had the oral agreements with the agents and players, but until it actually happens, things can fall through and Mitch was a nervous wreck. It was quite a coup. We felt we had a really good chance to win the championship.
Tayshaun Prince, Detroit Pistons forward, 2002-2013, 2015-present: When it happened, my first reaction was, "We’re pretty much handing them the title right now." Obviously, we didn’t know at that point how good we could be. We didn’t have Rasheed [Wallace] yet and we didn’t make the trades to make us a better team. So at that point, we definitely felt like they were the front-runners.
Jeanie Buss, Lakers executive vice president of business relations, 1999-present: It was a rebooting of the team and an interesting layer to interest fans and use in our marketing. It was very exciting.
Mark Heisler: I remember we had a meeting at the Times a week before training camp—people from every department of the paper. At least 30 people around this big conference table to talk about how we were going to cover every aspect of the team. I was thinking, "This is going to be the worst thing I’ve ever been involved in."
Rick Fox, Lakers forward, 1997-2004: Returning from a torn ligament in my foot, I did everything I could to make it to training camp. It was unrealistic for me to think I could participate, but I’ll be damned, I tried. I wanted to be in that starting lineup as the fifth Beatle. I was willing to risk reinjuring myself to make sure I was part of what we all thought was going to be one of the greatest teams ever.
Devean George, Lakers forward, 1999-2006: It was crazy, man, because I obviously grew up watching those guys. To really be able to play with them and learn from them, it was unbelievable. It didn’t seem like there was any jell time. Day 1, they just jumped right in as if they’d been on the team for 10 years. They jumped right in with the jokes, jumped right in with the pranks, from Day 1.
Luke Walton, Lakers forward, 2003-2012: Training camp back then, the vets didn’t have to be there until four or five days later. So the first couple of days it was just us young guys and Phil. Then the vets showed up and we had a team dinner. It’s Shaq and Karl and Kobe and GP and they tell me as a group, because of my father, they had a bidding war on the flight over to decide whose rookie I was going to be—to pretty much make my life hell. Karl paid like $15,000 to make me his personal rookie for the year.
We would get to cities like Milwaukee—I remember Milwaukee specifically because it was snowing outside—and Karl was like, "I need a pair of these certain type of headphones." So I called all around and nobody had them and I was like, "Karl, all I could find were these $20 headphones in the store across the street." He’s like, "Well, if you think I’m a $20 player, if you think that’s all I’m worth, go get those." I was like, "No, seriously, Karl, if I get you these ones…" And he’s like, "No, do what you want, you make the call." So I had to take this 30-minute taxi ride to some suburb in the snow to get him these nice $100 pair of headphones and the next day we’re getting off the plane and I see them just sitting in his chair. He’s already off the plane. ... So he sent me to get more headphones.
Rick Fox: Even from the flight over from L.A. to Hawaii there was an introduction to everyone’s ego and personality and expectations for the season. Everyone’s individual swagger and agenda. Here you have guys who are not superstars but have three rings. I wasn’t a superstar, Derek Fisher wasn’t a superstar, but in L.A. we were superstars. We were three-time NBA champions. But here comes Gary Payton and Karl Malone, Hall of Famers. How do you walk onto the plane as a Hall of Famer, without a ring, and how do you walk onto the plane as a three-time NBA champion and not see yourself as equals? And it’s a team sport. It’s not an individual sport and yet individual success carries a lot of weight.
Gary Payton, Lakers point guard, 2003-04: Karl and I had taken a pay cut to play with these guys. We weren’t into that anymore. I was into going somewhere and winning multiple championships.
John Black: Remember the Beatles’ cover of the famous album Abbey Road? I wanted to do a version of that with those four players for the cover of the media guide, maybe make a poster of it. Before I even discussed it with Gary and Karl, Shaq shot it down. It wasn’t even, "Let me think about it," it was "F--k no. I’m not doing that." We did end up doing a photo of them together—and it was probably a one-minute photo shoot—and made a poster of it, but it wasn’t that Abbey Road cover idea. Shaq was just in a nasty mood. There was some discomfort going on at that time.
Gary Payton: We went to Hawaii for training camp. Phil took us paintballing. We were having fun. But then we started getting all this stuff in the media and everybody started going their separate ways, and that’s when it started not being fun. We started off the season 18-3. Then all of a sudden Karl got hurt. He was controlling our offense. He was running that triangle, making us more comfortable, especially myself. Karl had never been hurt in his career, and it was a devastating injury that he couldn’t deal with. He had never missed that many games in his life.
Luke Walton: Karl was as good of a teammate as I’ve ever had. He was funny. He was hardworking. He was all about what was best for the team. He just had a great personality, offering advice to the young guys, hanging out with all the different groups of the older guys—he was just awesome.
When he got hurt, not having him out there being an anchor, you just noticed something left the team
The Lakers were 19-5 when Malone sprained his right knee in the early going of their 20th win against the Phoenix Suns. He would miss the next 39 games and the Lakers would go 22-17 without him; his return coincided with a 14-4 run to close the regular season.
Rick Fox: We got off to such an incredible start. Everything everyone expected us to be, we appeared to be that. Then Karl went down. And then there were challenges of what were we going to be, as we increasingly reached moments of debate on how we should play. And then Kobe’s trial dominated our weekly conversation amongst the team and in the newspaper and the media.
Mark Heisler: There was one game where Kobe had just flown back from Aspen and he had this incredible game. He was so exhausted. They were giving him fluids at halftime. This harrowing experience pulled them together. And there was this warm-up and everyone thawed. I remember asking Kobe at that time, "Are you going to opt out?" And he said, "I don’t know." All of a sudden, he’s thinking about staying a Laker.
Despite offseason surgery on his shoulder and knee and his presence required at pre-trial court hearings for his rape case throughout the season, Bryant played in 65 games, sometimes arriving at the arena directly off his flight from Colorado. His standout performances included two buzzer-beaters on the final day of the regular season to force overtime and then defeat the Trail Blazers, a division title-clinching victory.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard, 1996-present: I lost a lot of weight and on top of that I had knee surgery and a shoulder injury. It was crazy that I was able to play at that level, anywhere near that level. You can’t compare the stress (of the trial) to anything else. One is life, real life, the other is a game. Can’t compare them. Basketball, for me, was my refuge, my sanctuary.
Derek Fisher, Lakers guard, 1996-2004, 2007-2012: Man, that’s always been hard for me to elaborate on because of how much respect I have for Kobe. Never having played with Michael Jordan on the same team, I just remember vividly having confirmation during that year that Kobe was one of the best and arguably, depending on who is in the conversation, would be regarded as the best to ever play at that time. I had only observed one other basketball player on earth that could’ve possibly managed all that came with being in that situation and still gone out and performed on the levels he was performing on.
Kareem Rush, Lakers guard, 2002-2004: I was kind of Kobe’s underling. As his backup, I always had to be prepared to play, in case he wasn’t there. We knew what he was going to bring to the table if he was there, no matter when he got there. I’d never seen anything like it.
Luke Walton: What was incredible about him is that there were nights he’d fly back from Colorado and Kareem Rush would be in the starting lineup and literally would get announced and Kobe would come straight from the airport, change and before the announcement ended and the jump ball started, he’d get out there, no warm-up, and just come out and score 42 points and be the most focused—like he didn’t have anything else going on.
I’m sure, from a coaching perspective, it was a little distracting because he didn’t practice. You were wondering: Is he playing, is he not playing? It wasn’t distracting to me, but again, I was just a little peon.
Derek Fisher: We all kind of had our own things. I had floating in the back of mind not starting anymore and it being an option year, as far as my contract. And Shaq was having his [contract] thoughts. Phil was trying to decide if he may or may not come back next year. You could see all the thought bubbles floating around our space when we moved around.
That’s actually what makes it almost remarkable and incomprehensible that team still made it to the Finals that year.
The relationship between the two stars was strained almost from the moment the Lakers signed O’Neal away from Orlando as a free agent and traded with Charlotte for the draft rights to Bryant, in part because O’Neal saw Bryant as his sidekick. Bryant’s pending free agency gave him leverage to assert otherwise.
John Black: It was a preseason game in Hawaii. Shaq had just blocked a shot and Dr. Buss was sitting courtside and [Shaq] screamed out, "You going to pay me now?" It was disrespectful. We had a lot of inquiries, people wanting to know what was our comment, what was Dr. Buss’ comment to him doing that. Dr. Buss said publicly it didn’t bother him at all. We declined to comment as an organization and tried to downplay it as much as possible. But it did bother Dr. Buss, and he admitted that it did years later. But at the time that’s how we handled it.
Shaquille O’Neal: You know, a lot of people think the great Jerry Buss and I had disagreements. They were never personal disagreements. You know—me being a businessman—I understand business. At the time, I was making high-dollar. And, you know, it was kind of mentioned to my people that, "You’re on your way down, we want you to take less money."
But in my mind and my heart, I still had one or two more championships in me, and I didn’t want to accept taking less money.
Mark Heisler: There also was an exhibition game against the Clippers in Anaheim. There were reports that (agent Rob) Pelinka was telling the Clippers, "Save your cap space." Supposedly there was this plan for (GM/coach) Mike (Dunleavy) to go into a room before the game and Kobe would come in through another door so they could talk. Mike decided not to do it, because he thought he would get in trouble. But during the game, Kobe apparently inbounded the ball in front of their bench and said something like, "Get me over here." Kobe’s thought at that point seemed to be that he was going to leave.
John Black: Mostly it was Shaq and Kobe didn’t like each other, but it didn’t affect them on the court. They would say something about the other, on or off the record, but it didn’t become confrontational more than two or three times over the eight years. When Kobe gave the statement to Jim Gray where he went off calling Shaq fat and lazy, that was one of the times. There was one really bad one, early on. Brian Shaw had to pull them apart. Shaq threatened to murder Kobe.
Mark Heisler: There was this exchange in the papers between Shaq and Kobe right before the season started. One of the greatest exchanges I’ve ever covered. Shaq zinged Kobe and then Kobe zinged Shaq. It came to a head the last practice before the regular season, and they sent them both home. I think it was Karl who said, "This is over now, trust me." That afternoon, Kobe loaded up Jim Gray with all this stuff about Shaq coming to camp fat and out of shape and not being a leader. That’s how they started the season.
Gary Payton: I don’t think they communicated in the right way. They should’ve talked more, but it got to the point where we were in the papers, and all of a sudden the newspapers said this, they said Kobe said that and Shaq is reading these things and then you have to retaliate, and that’s not the best way to do it.
Luke Walton: Early in my career, Kobe was still the incredible hard worker and natural leader on the floor, but there wasn’t much as far as leadership in bringing guys with you. It was kind of like: "Look, I’m here first, I’m working harder than anyone, I’m obviously more talented than everybody and I’m going to give everything I have in every game I play." So, naturally he’s a leader, you respect that. Where, with Shaq, you come in and he’s practical jokes every single day, he’s telling you he’s got your back and, if somebody is fouling you, he’d tell you to "run them in to me next time." He’d lay them out for you—little things like that would make you love Shaq.
All throughout the season, this star-studded squad faced challenge after challenge, crisis after crisis. It trudged on, through sheer perseverance, but there were telltale signs the juggernaut was vulnerable.
Rick Fox: Shaq’s injuries came into play. I can remember a time during that season where Karl was out, Shaq was out; then it was just Gary and Kobe; then Shaq would come back and Kobe would go out and we kept waiting for Karl to return and we couldn’t get him right. We just kept breaking down in every category—emotionally, mentally, physically—and spiritually, as Phil would tell you. We just weren’t living up to what we thought was going to be a 73-9 season.
Derek Fisher: I really struggled the first half of the year reconciling not starting anymore, and Kareem Rush was on our roster and he was a young guard that was developing and the team wanted to give him a chance to see if he could develop a little bit. So my role had really been condensed big time, and it impacted my play. It took a full half of the season before I just let it go. I couldn’t play with that frustration and anger on the court.
Gary Payton: I was getting frustrated when Phil made decisions, when plays weren’t coming to me. I should’ve stepped up even more than I did. I should’ve taken over more games, did what I wanted to do, played the pick-and-roll, shot the ball more. I was trying to fit in instead of being Gary Payton. I let Phil down because he wasn’t supposed to monitor me or control me or coach me. I should’ve just gone out there and be who I was, because I’d never let any coach like that do that to me ever.
Rick Fox: But that’s also in conflict with what the triangle system was. You don’t step into it and discuss deferring. No, you step into it and you play. And if at any point you feel you’re not being aggressive enough, you’re probably being too aggressive. But it was hard for Karl or Gary to get that in one month of training camp.
But everyone was so afraid of us; everyone just laid down for us the first 20 games. People just didn’t think they could beat us. When teams got away from the fear of, "Oh, this is a friggin All-Star team" and they started challenging us, the cracks and the flaws started to show up. We didn’t have the experience and the know-how to fall back into our system, and guys started to go individually one-on-one.
Derek Fisher: We weren’t a team. We were a collection of very accomplished and high-achieving individuals. Even though we had a really good core and nucleus of guys who had been there for a few years already, we weren’t a team.
Despite all the distractions and turmoil, the Lakers won the Pacific Division with a 56-26 record, handled the Houston Rockets in the first round in five games and avenged their loss the previous year to the Spurs in six games. The seminal moment was Fisher’s game-winning shot in San Antonio with .4 seconds left in Game 5. It’s now known simply as ".4."
Malone, after a 39-game absence, returned in March and played a pivotal role in shutting down Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves in the conference finals. The Lakers entered the NBA Finals as heavy favorites and had home-court advantage against the Detroit Pistons—a team bolstered by the addition of Rasheed Wallace and the emergence of future perennial All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace. Few gave the Pistons a chance, but that would change after Detroit stole Game 1 in the Staples Center. Malone reinjured himself in Game 3, struggled in Game 4 and failed to suit up for Game 5.
Rick Fox: I knew we’d get exposed. I hoped we’d pull it off. Who doesn’t want a fourth championship? But I remember back in January or December, watching the Detroit Pistons and having the utmost respect for them in the regular season. They held six or seven teams in a row to under 70 points. I was listening to our team and I personally felt we didn’t have enough respect for the Pistons. We thought we were going to steamroll them. And that’s how we, as a group, behind the scenes, were talking about it.
Phil Jackson, Lakers coach, 1999-2004, 2005-2011: When I was sitting down with the players, I said, "You just don’t understand this. You don’t have a chance in hell against Detroit. All the emotional momentum is for Detroit. The Comeback Team. The underdogs. They had the shot block at the end of the Indiana game—Prince blocked Reggie Miller’s shot and saved the ballgame. They won a seven-game series. So it’s gonna be a huge emotional thing."
And of course, Malone couldn’t play, and Horace Grant couldn’t play—both of my power forwards. Fox was on the team, but he hadn’t totally recovered from his injury. So we felt like we were going into the series on the downside. They were going in the series on a climb.
Tayshaun Prince: Right before Game 1, they threw something for me at my high school [Prince is from Los Angeles]. While I was speaking to the kids, one of the first questions they had was, "How you going to feel when you losing?" Because they were all Lakers fans. I’m in Compton. Everybody in L.A. is a big Lakers fan. And as much as they were appreciating me for what I did coming from that school and everything, the first question out of their mouth was, "How you going to feel when you lose this series?" The only thing I could do is laugh it off.
And I’ll never forget this: A couple of us starters were in [general manager] Joe D’s [Dumars'] office and we had Isiah [Thomas] on a conference call. He said, "We’re about to shock the world and nobody knows it but us. Everybody thinks we’re about to get swept, and it’s a possibility that they’re going to get swept." This was two or three days before the series even started. He was like, "Once we win Game 1, people will realize we’re here to win it, not just be a part of it."
Chauncey Billups, Pistons point guard, 2002-2008, 2013-14: You know, man, I was very, very confident even before we started Game 1 of that series. In our two meetings against them during the season, we had our way with them. We did. With the team we had—not the personnel—we were tough to contend with. I actually thought we’d have a tougher time against Minnesota than we would have against the Lakers, because of two things: our most potent offensive players, there was no way they could stop either one of us. There was no way they could stop me in the pick-and-roll, because I was just going to bring Shaq out on the perimeter and wear him down, and if he didn’t step out, I would have open jump shots all series. And two, Rip, I was going to run Rip all over the place and every play that I called, it was going to be him coming off Shaq’s side.
Kobe Bryant: Honestly Detroit played extremely well. They were a well-oiled machine, man—on both ends of the floor. They were sharp as s--t. Extremely sharp, extremely crisp, extremely methodical and it was well deserved.
All those factors contributed to them winning the way that they did. If you go back and look at the Finals when we played Larry Brown’s Philly team, the reason that went the way it did is because we were so locked in, so focused, so well prepared. We knew each other’s moves inside and out. So when you go against a Larry Brown team, he puts pressure on the triangle and forces you to go deeper into the offense. You have to rely on automatics. You have to know each other’s tendencies to react to the other. We weren’t ready to do that. There was just too much going on. We weren’t as sharp as those other teams that had been together forever.
Chauncey Billups: Our game plan was very calculated. We knew we were going to play Shaq straight-up. We knew there was no way we could stop Shaq straight-up. And there was also no way we could stop Kobe straight-up. But, if we’re going to play Shaq straight-up, [the Lakers'] eyes are going to get big, which means they’re going to keep throwing it down there. We’re telling Ben the whole time, "Take fouls when you need to, but don’t get yourself into foul trouble. You need to give up a layup, cool, we’re going to get what we want on the other side." But what’s going to happen is Mr. Bryant is going to get a little discouraged with getting no touches and now the second half comes around…now he’s pressing. He’s going to start coming down and just breaking the offense. When you do that, you’re done—you’re playing right into our hands. Even if you start making those shots, you’re finished.
Rick Fox: They jump on us in the first game, the second game Kobe hits the game-winner, and that was the worst thing that could’ve happened to us because it gave us a false sense that everything is OK.
Tayshaun Prince: I kind of look at it as a blessing in disguise that we lost that game. I say that because we flew home after Game 2 and we had over a four-hour flight, and we were so disappointed in ourselves that entire flight. We were on that plane devastated. You could hear a pin drop on that flight. That might’ve sealed their fate, in the sense of, "We ain’t letting this happen again."
Chauncey Billups: I’m serious, man, we were so mad that Rip gave Kobe the space to score that shot to go into overtime in Game 2. I’m telling you, we all felt like we should’ve swept them. We were really mad that we didn’t sweep that team.
Jeanie Buss: You could just see it happening and slipping away. You knew that this team was coming to an end. It would’ve been nice to wait and not had it accelerated, that they could’ve played for the championship with clear heads and clear minds, but the rumor mill was at full speed, and I think it was a huge distraction.
Derek Fisher: Everyone had just grown kind of numb to all the things that surrounded us. We were all kind of internalizing things and maybe being protective of our own selves. We weren’t the type of close-knit and connected team we needed to be to break through in the Finals. In particular with the injuries, but also running into a team like Detroit that was more closely connected and bonded as a unit.
Phil Jackson: Chauncey was the MVP. We tried to put pressure on Chauncey, then he would fall down and go to the foul line. We couldn’t even press them. Chauncey was using screen-rolls, and we couldn’t cover it. I tried Kobe on Hamilton, then Chauncey was beating Gary Payton. He was too strong and big for Fish. I think I tried everything but a zone. I put Kobe on Chauncey. That was a foul situation. Chauncey put him in foul situations.
Chauncey Billups: There was a cynical little smile I had when they put Kobe on me because, for one, he’s made the switch and he’s coming to guard me, which means they’re desperate. And, two, there was nothing he could do defensively. No matter how good he is on the ball, I’m about to call pick-and-roll up here. So you could hawk and reach and do everything you want to do. You’re not going to steal it from me and two, I’m going to call the screen and, as soon as Ben Wallace finishes with this screen, you’re going to be behind the play so it really doesn’t matter, because now I’m going one-on-one with whoever the big guy is.
Kobe Bryant: They were more prepared than us. They were sharper. So that’s not like the Celtics championship in ’08, where we had significantly less talent than that Celtics team. Even after losing that 20-point lead or something, I still felt like we had a chance to turn things around. That Detroit series? That wasn’t the case. Those dudes were sharp and we had to go deeper into our offense and we just weren’t prepared to do it.
Phil Jackson: I saw it coming. Being a lame-duck coach, having a group of kids that were at each other’s throat for most of the year, having two guys like Gary and Karl, who were brought in as ringers. Karl was out. Gary was...it was a struggle for him to try and match up at that point for a long period of time in a game.
We were clearly overmatched in that Finals.
Derek Fisher: You can have great players, you can have great coaching—the way we did—you can have all the resources available to you and you can actually make it all the way to the Finals, but the best team will win that series every single time.
Mitch Kupchak: The thing that Detroit had going for them, they hit their stride in the playoffs and they had great chemistry and they were playing their best basketball in the Finals. They were ready to play another series after that series and we weren’t. We were beat up emotionally. We had reached the end of our line.
The Lakers made it clear that re-signing Bryant was their No. 1 objective, and while they weren’t sure if retaining O’Neal and Jackson might discourage that, they weren’t taking any chances.
Jeanie Buss: Shaq’s agreement had been grandfathered into that collective bargaining agreement so he could be paid more than anybody else. He wanted an extension that my father wasn’t willing to agree to, and their disagreement was only about money and business. My dad didn’t harbor bad feelings about Shaq. In fact, it was important that they repaired their relationship before my dad passed away. It was a business decision, and there are always those kinds of issues on a team.
Shaquille O’Neal: Jerry Buss was good to me and you know we had a great time. I just wanted to clear that now. There was never a personal disagreement. But you know, when you’re business people, everybody has a business disagreement.
Phil Jackson: I think Shaq knew what was going on. Shaq knew that his time was limited. It was the last stand. I knew I wasn’t gonna be back. Our conversation had broken down, and they had decided to go another direction. And the die was cast, so to speak, in that situation.
Jeanie Buss: Because of all the speculation, Shaq demanded the trade and he got it. Phil was told on Father’s Day that he wouldn’t be coming back. It was just a disappointment not to come away with a championship and know that there wasn’t going to be a chance for redemption and get it right the next time because the band was breaking up.
Derek Fisher: You could feel the breakup coming. It had kind of been a slow crescendo, and now everything is about to change.
Gary Payton: I still thought we were going to win a championship. I really thought we were all going to come back. They could’ve just let us come back and play the way we were supposed to play. Let us all be there for a whole year. I don’t know why they broke us up after we went to a championship and we had so much turmoil. I didn’t really understand that. And that was my only disappointment. I was really mad about that because they gave up on us after we went to a championship.
Then all the controversy came and people started saying that Kobe wanted to have his own team, and he went to Dr. Buss and Dr. Buss chose a side and started trading us all. With me and Kobe, we were very close. I don’t think he went in there and said, "Let’s get rid of Shaq, let’s get rid of Gary, let’s get rid of Karl." I don’t believe Kobe was behind it. I don’t buy into it.
Kobe Bryant: I wasn’t going to play with Shaq anymore after that. That just wasn’t going to happen. Things he had said, criticism from the media in saying I can’t win without him. Look, I put that individual s--t aside to win championships and now I’m getting criticized for it. Now I’m going to show you f--ks what I can do on my own. So that challenge, I was going to answer that challenge no matter what—whether I was going to stay in L.A. or go somewhere else, I was going to answer that challenge.
John Black: I’ve said this a million times to media guys: When it ended, it was portrayed as extremely disappointing and how could we let it happen that Shaq and Kobe couldn’t work things out. I looked at it differently. It did work out. They spent eight years together and they didn’t like each other and it was difficult, and that thing could’ve ended in two years or three years. It could’ve gone sour earlier. But despite the discomfort of it, the disharmony and dislike, they stayed together for eight years, won three championships together. People look back at the great run of harmony Magic and Kareem had together, but it was the same amount of time Shaq and Kobe spent together. I think it was pretty phenomenal that it did work out as long as it did.
Shaquille O’Neal: That was probably the most talented team I’ve been on. You know, myself, I was playing with three Hall of Famers: Karl, GP—we all know Kobe’s going to be a Hall of Famer. And you know, at times, when the ball was moving, it was hopping, and the fans were going crazy. Jack [Nicholson] was giving us high-fives. It was sort of comparable to the early Lakers' Showtimes when they had all those Hall of Famers on that team.
If I had one wish, I wish we could have gotten those guys a couple years earlier. Karl was older. GP was older. Wish we could have gotten them towards the end of their prime. And you know, I think we would have won that series. And then, if Karl doesn’t get hurt, I’d probably still be a Laker to this day.