After the Lakers’ bid to win four consecutive 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.
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.” […] 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.
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: “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.”
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