LOS ANGELES -- A shattered Shaquille O'Neal says his relationship with Kobe Bryant was like brotherhood, from their epic split after three NBA titles together to mutual respect and love after tensions healed.
Bryant died Sunday aged 41 in a helicopter crash, a shocking loss that has left his former Los Angeles Lakers teammate O'Neal sleepless, unable to eat and watching 20-year-old video highlights of their heyday.
"We still are the best duo ever created. That's never going to change," O'Neal said on his social media outlet "The Big Podcast."
"I'm not doing well. I haven't eaten. I haven't slept. I'm looking at all the tapes. I'm sick right now.
"This is going to hurt a long time. I have a little brother, but I really lost a brother."
With "Shaq" the overpowering center and Bryant a deadly sharpshooting guard, the Lakers captured NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
"Not only did we win three, we dominated three," O'Neal said. "It wasn't even close."
But seeds of discontent grew with their success. O'Neal arrived in 2000-01 training camp out of shape while Bryant had worked hard in the off-season and was unhappy "Shaq" hadn't shown similar resolve.
In 2003, as Bryant contested rape charges that were later dropped, O'Neal suggested Kobe needed to pass more often. Bryant reportedly said he should have paid off women to keep silent about encounters the way O'Neal did.
Each player so vital to the Lakers' domination sought credit as the most crucial of the duo and the magic was gone, LA losing to Detroit in the 2004 NBA Finals.
"In the fourth (final), things happened. People were hurt. People were out. We didn't pull it off," O'Neal said. "Changes had to be made."
O'Neal demanded a trade and was sent to Miami. A day later, free agent Bryant re-signed with the Lakers.
"Everything that happened happened," O'Neal said. "A lot of people like to look at the negative side but I think (people) understand this as a Laker fan, the plan worked out perfectly. We won three in a row.
"It would have been a more horrific story if we didn't win any."
- 'What if?' haunts Shaq -
"Shaq" won the 2006 crown with Miami, teaming with star guard Dwyane Wade. Bryant would surpass him in career crowns by sparking the Lakers to titles in 2009 and 2010.
"Just one more than Shaq," Bryant said when asked what his fifth title meant to him.
O'Neal retired in 2011 and Bryant in 2016 and time helped heal the split, "Shaq" calling Bryant "the greatest Laker ever" with Kobe saying in 2013 they had developed "mutual respect" and a "really good relationship."
"Our relationship was that of brothers," O'Neal said. "All this stuff that is documented between us, it was never a dislike. This is what brothers do.
"I have a brother. We fight all the time but I love him. I love Kobe Bryant (the same way).
"I'm the first to say, 'Hey, I got four rings and I know I couldn't get three without him.'"
"Shaq" will never know how many he and Bryant could have won had they stayed together like such prior Laker duos as Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"Sometimes when competition comes -- the competitive edge, you know -- I'm glad we became closer," O'Neal said. "But I just sit back and say what if?"
- 'Hurt for a long time' -
Even with the mended relationship, O'Neal has some regrets.
"I wish we would have communicated more. But that's just how we are," O'Neal said. "When we saw each other it was love and respect... Just wish I could have sat and talked to him before."
In the meantime, "Shaq" has memories of past glories such as when Bryant jumped into his arms in the seconds after they captured their first NBA titles back in 2000.
"I ain't going to get no sleep for a while. Just been sitting up watching old highlights," O'Neal said. "Even if I just wanted to cry and get away from it, I couldn't."
O'Neal wants to be sure more unspoken words aren't left unsaid to others in the wake of Bryant's death.
"You don't really know how long you have left," O'Neal said. "I'm all about being hard and all that but... I'm going to have to delete my beef and my confrontation clause. I don't want to do that any more.
"I guess I just call all the people I've had discrepancies with and say, 'Look man, I love you.'
"This one is going to hurt for a long, long time. I wish he was here. I wish I could say something to him."
© Agence France-Presse
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