LOS ANGELES — It's not about Shaq vs. Kobe, you know. Or, to be more precise, it's not just about Shaq vs. Kobe.
To the delight, no doubt, of the good folks at ABC — who have made the meeting of the NBA's top two teams the undercard for Christmas Day Showdown II — events have aligned nicely to give today's game between the Lakers and Miami Heat more real or imagined personality conflicts than a year's supply of People, Us Weekly and In Touch.
Shaq vs. Kobe, of course, remains the primary attraction. If the NBA were to put out its own tabloid to hype this attraction, they'd be the guys on the cover, with plenty of speculative headlines about grudges, collisions or Corvettes meeting brick walls. (That was Shaquille O'Neal's own characterization of the meeting with Kobe Bryant last Christmas, you may recall, and it wasn't difficult to figure out that he wasn't casting himself in the role of Chevrolet.)
But neither man has done much to feed the soap-opera story lines. Earlier this week, Bryant told ESPN's "Pardon The Interruption" he'd like to have a better relationship with O'Neal but that it wasn't a big priority. And Shaq was actually complimentary when asked about Bryant's 62-point game against Dallas on Tuesday, telling the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "It was just one of those days when he got on a roll, got hot and shot the ball pretty well."
(Shaq being Shaq, of course, he had to squeeze in a one-liner when asked if Bryant's game was sending a message about today. "I don't have a fax machine, so I didn't get that message," he said.)
A year ago, the mere prospect of actual civility between the two players would have robbed the game at Staples Center of much of its attraction, reducing it to, you know, just a basketball game. (A pretty good one, too, as you might recall, with the Heat beating the Lakers 104-102 in overtime.)
But this time around, even if Shaq and Kobe were to suddenly declare a truce or reveal an actual friendship, ABC is still in pretty good shape in terms of drama it can sell to the audience looking for something Beyond Basketball.
For those of you following along at home, here are some of the potential conflicts on the Shaq-Kobe undercard, in approximate order of their likelihood:
Shaq vs. Jerry Buss: This one's already raging, and to be honest, it doesn't reflect all that well on the Big Grudgeholder. Last season, you'll recall, the Lakers owner — in defending the trade that sent O'Neal to Miami — said it was only after being traded that Shaq found the motivation to lose some weight. O'Neal's response: "I didn't need motivation. I needed a real owner." And this week, O'Neal said Buss isn't "an honest businessman" because he won't explain the real reasons for the trade.
Buss says he still likes O'Neal — which tends to be true of most people who actually know the center — but the feeling clearly isn't mutual. If some of the sniping seems a bit petty (Buss was pretty good to O'Neal while he was in L.A., after all; among other things, he honored Shaq's desire to play for Jackson), well, it doesn't hurt to be reminded from time to time that in many ways, O'Neal resembles the world's largest 14-year-old, for better or worse. He can be playful, likeable and funny, but he can also be moody, extremely sensitive and capable of speaking before thinking.
Shaq vs. the scale: This long-running battle is back on the front burner after the Heat's second-time-around coach, Pat Riley, said he'd like Shaq to get down to 320 pounds. O'Neal minimized the significance of his weight, as he usually does — "I don't live my life by numbers," he said — but the very issue certainly increased the prospect of . . .
Shaq vs. Pat: In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for department, O'Neal has intimated since arriving in Miami that he'd like to play for Riley, who had ascended to the front office. Now that the extremely hands-on, very demanding Riley — in many ways the antithesis of a Phil Jackson — is in charge, it seems altogether likely the two personalities will clash at some point.
Kobe vs. Phil: Back at the start of the season, this was the potential conflict that brought the tabloid TV shows back to Lakers games, where they hadn't been since Bryant's legal problems ended. But with each passing day, it seems more likely that, Jackson's noted literary works notwithstanding, player and coach have found a way to coexist.
Of course, it's a lot easier for the two of them to be on the same page when Bryant clearly is the dominant offensive figure, which wasn't the case back when Shaq was still in purple and gold, looming over team, town and league.
Phil vs. Pat: Honestly, there's no real reason to think hostilities will break out between these two over a single game or any regular-season game. But there's certainly plenty of history between the two from the days when Jackson coached the Bulls and Riley coached the Knicks. It would probably take a playoff series for the two coaches to really get heated up, and since they can only meet in the NBA Finals, it's probably not something anyone has to worry about (or should look forward to) in the near future.
So pick your conflict, pull up a chair and remember, it's not really about Shaq and Kobe.
At least, not until the first time Bryant tries to drive the lane and O'Neal is waiting for him.
David Lassen is a columnist for the Ventura (Calif). County Star