Once upon a time, Kobe Bryant was a second fiddle, and the first chair violinist was one Shaquille O’Neal. Their storybook threepeat ended with bad tastes left in each others’ mouths, and the feud came to a head on Christmas Day eight years ago: the first matchup that pitted Kobe against Shaq. And it was a big deal.
So big a deal, in fact, that it stood up as the most watched regular-season NBA game until the Lakers-Celtics Finals rematch on Christmas Day in 2008. Tension between Shaq and Kobe was percolating before the match, with Shaq telling Al Michaels during an interview on Monday Night Football that Kobe was a “Corvette” and he was a “brick wall.” And if we knew anything about physics, it’s that one of those things win, and one loses.
And alas, Shaq’s Heat won and Kobe’s Lakers lost in a 104-102 overtime thriller. Shaq dropped 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Kobe scored 42, missing a three-pointer that would have won the game while time expired in overtime. A young Dwyane Wade, no slouch himself, carried the brunt of the load for Miami with 29 points and 10 assists. More importantly, Shaq and Kobe uttered no words to each other pregame, just a cold elbow tap. It gets cold everywhere on Christmas, even in the City of Angels.
With so many rivalries having come and gone in the NBA in the years since, it’s hard to remember just how big this duel was cracked up to be. The 2000-2002 championship Lakers were the last threepeat dynasty in any of the four major American sports, and when they were upset by the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals (they had Karl Malone and Gary Payton that year too, remember), bad blood boiled after Shaq was shipped and Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak put the franchise firmly in Kobe’s hands.
Since that day, Shaq went on to win one more finals with the Heat in 2006, and tried latching on to any championship team he could thereafter (Nash’s Suns, LeBron’s Cavs, Garnett’s Cetlics), but nothing took and retirement ensued. Kobe has since made sweet music with Pau Gasol and other supporting cast members, winning the Finals in 2009 and 2010, and recently became just the fifth player to ever crack 30,000 career points.
But that was one special Christmas in the basketball world. Just ask Destiny’s Child (they were still a thing!):