Kobe Bryant insisted last week that the trading of his Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal to Miami "had nothing to do with me." Shaq himself and other Lakers tell it differently. "It shouldn't take a genius to see the politics of the whole thing," O'Neal told NEWSWEEK. "You had a management office that was more concerned with the desires of one player, and that changed the entire game."
Former teammates say O'Neal's troubles began the day Bryant joined the team. "Kobe didn't care that Shaq was the veteran with the experience," said a Lakers staff member. "He didn't want to listen or defer, and he knew he didn't have to because the fans were on his side. For whatever reason, fans loved Kobe from the moment he hit town." The fans' support of Bryant often bruised O'Neal's ego. "Big guys are considered big and clumsy and not suave like the small guys--they seem more regular, I guess," he said. Most Lakers expected the dynamic to change after Bryant's arrest last year on sexual-assault charges. But Kobe remained popular with the crowds--and with team owner Jerry Buss, who spent Super Bowl Sunday this year at Bryant's mansion. Teammates saw his bonding with management as part of his plan to force out Shaq and coach Phil Jackson. "To them he was this good-looking black kid that spoke different languages and that made him smart and different from the rest of us," says one. "But trust me, Kobe really ain't different--he's just slick. With Shaq--what you saw was what you got. I guess it doesn't pay to be real." Now Miami fans are scooping up season tickets. The big man may finally feel the big love.