As Kobe Bryant Memorial Nears, Shaquille O’Neal Says: ‘I’m Hurting’

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The math was, shall we say, daunting for Kobe Bryant’s first coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. Del Harris had a veteran team with two future All-Stars in his backcourt even before Bryant arrived in the summer of 1996.

Harris’s priority was thus ensuring that those two star guards, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, had the room to orbit comfortably around the Lakers’ other marquee newcomer entering the 1996-97 season: Shaquille O’Neal. As supremely skilled as Bryant was for his age, Harris and the Lakers’ general manager, Jerry West, agreed that finding minutes for the impatient teenager would be best done gradually.

Bryant, of course, did not agree with that plan. He wanted to start immediately and was not dissuaded by the injury that knocked him out of his entire first training camp and preseason as a pro.

“In his exuberance to play, he couldn’t wait for camp to start and broke his hand playing pickup ball at Venice Beach,” Harris said. “He was so hungry that he would go and find places to play and work on his own.

“He was so oriented to being the best. Not only the best he could be. The best — period.”

Harris is one of the game’s foremost storytellers and my go-to N.B.A. historian. So we naturally spent almost an hour on the phone on Thursday night comparing notes and tales in advance of a memorial service in Los Angeles on Monday to celebrate the lives of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven victims aboard a helicopter that crashed into a hillside Jan. 26 near Calabasas, Calif.

As usual, Harris remembered much more than I did. As usual, I did more listening than talking as we reminisced about Bryant’s nascent days as a Laker from our old vantage points: Harris as the coach and me as the newspaper beat writer.

Yet what struck me most as we rewound through the years is how thoroughly sobering the math is now.

Bryant’s career, spanning 20 seasons with the storied Lakers, seemed so rich and long, only for the crash to snatch his life away not even four years into retirement — at the age of 41.

“I’m twice as old as he is,” Harris, 82, said softly. “The two youngest players I ever coached in all my years were Moses Malone and Kobe Bryant. And they’re both gone.”

Nearly a month since the crash, prominent N.B.A. figures like Harris and O’Neal continue to struggle to process the news. Numerous players and coaches leaguewide have taken to wearing various models of Bryant’s signature sneakers — and scribbling messages onto whatever they wear — to salute him. Moving remembrances have already taken place, both before the Lakers’ first home game since the accident and throughout the All-Star activities last week in Chicago. Attention turns now to Monday’s memorial, which is bound to be the most emotional public tribute.

N.B.A. commissioner Adam Silver, in an appearance last Sunday on NBA TV, acknowledged feeling “the heaviness” at every league gathering in Chicago. Yet he asserted that “there is something cathartic about coming together and being able to talk about these things.”

O’Neal hopes Silver is right about the benefits of communal grieving. He and Harris will both attend Monday’s service, along with an array of current and retired luminaries from around the league.

“I’ve never seen nothing like this before,” O’Neal, the Hall of Fame center-turned-Turner Sports analyst, said last week when we crossed All-Star paths. “All the greats I grew up watching, I got to see them grow old.

“Dr. J is a good friend of mine,” O’Neal continued, referring to the legendary former Nets and Philadelphia 76ers highflier Julius Erving. Of Wilt Chamberlain, O’Neal added: “I only met Wilt once, but I met him.

“These are things,” O’Neal said of Bryant’s sudden death, “that you never imagine happening.”

Bryant was just 4 when Harris met him in Houston while serving as the last N.B.A. coach for Kobe’s father, Joe Bryant. Since the crash, Harris has found himself consuming all sorts of Kobe video footage, from his last game at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia to a talk show sit-down last November with Kelly Clarkson.

“He was doing so much good,” Harris said. “It’s one thing to have plans. He had plans that were already working, whether it was the books he was writing, education programs, the Mamba Academy. The things he could have done and would have done, that’s what we will miss.”

O’Neal is a prankster by nature, but his season has been filled with sorrow. In October, his sister Ayesha Harrison-Jax, 40, died of cancer. News of Bryant’s death then toppled O’Neal again, as seen on Jan. 28 when he wept openly in a TNT special about his former teammate.

“People who know me know I’m hurting,” O’Neal said. “In a million years, I never thought my younger sister would pass before me. And I never thought any of my teammates would go out before me — especially the way Kobe went out.”

They were Hollywood co-stars for eight unforgettable seasons. It was always a tenuous pairing, marked by three championships, too many feuds to list and the unshakable sense that they could have won more titles had they just stayed together.

“We’re forever going to be linked,” O’Neal said.

Tensions gradually faded after they shared the All-Star most valuable player award in 2009, but the realization that he and Bryant last spoke in February 2018 for a TNT conversation has bothered O’Neal ever since the accident. Bryant maintained more frequent communication with some of O’Neal’s children — all the way up to a direct message he sent to O’Neal’s eldest son, Shareef, via Instagram on the morning of the accident. O’Neal, though, hasn’t even tried to hide his regret.

“He was good at always looking out for my boys, telling them to come work out at the Mamba gym, but I wish I would have communicated with him more,” O’Neal said. “People in our lives, if we think about them, we should communicate a little bit more.

“The other day I was just thinking: ‘I wonder what Nick Van Exel is doing. I wonder what Eddie Jones is doing.’ I’m trying to do a better job now, at the tender age of 47, of just communicating with people.”

Throughout the past month, O’Neal has maintained his usual brisk schedule, immersing himself in the standard two nights a week in TNT’s Atlanta studios amid his myriad business interests and the annual nonstop bustle of All-Star festivities.

I chatted with O’Neal on Feb. 13 — a Thursday that tipped off a 96-hour stretch filled with assignments in Chicago — and asked if working so much and trying to talk about basketball were difficult under the circumstances.

“No,” he said. “Sleeping is.”

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