- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

PHOENIX | Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant spent part of their first day as teammates again helping refurbish a school and its playground.

O’Neal didn’t accuse Bryant of hogging the tools, and Bryant didn’t blame O’Neal for being too fat to keep up.

See that - those former foes are getting along just fine.

The start of All-Star weekend brought the former Los Angeles Lakers back together Friday, five years after the end of a great partnership on the court and a better soap opera off it.

“It’ll be like old times. It’ll be great memories,” O’Neal said. “Kobe’s playing at a very high level right now. It’ll be like old times. I can remember, not that long ago, we were the best tandem ever created in the game. So it’s going to be fun out there.”

They will take the floor Sunday night as teammates for the first time since the 2004 NBA Finals, when they were upset by the Detroit Pistons, letting another possible title slip away.

They won three, but both say they would have won more had they stayed together. O’Neal guessed six or seven, while Bryant said, “several more,” but they agreed there was no use dwelling on the past.

“We just don’t look at things like that in this game,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who will coach the Western Conference. “Things went the way they were supposed to go, and life goes on as far as that goes.”

Just like the old days, the two couldn’t have seemed more different Friday. O’Neal, always the entertainer, had hugs and handshakes for old friends and foes, smiling his way throughout his return to All-Star weekend after missing last year’s game.

Bryant arrived 45 minutes late for his session with the media and seemed to squirm with every mention of O’Neal’s name.

“Everybody wants to make a story out of that thing, and to us it’s really not that big of a story,” Bryant said. “I’m not revisiting that. It wasn’t a fun time for me, so I’m not about to revisit it.”

O’Neal and Bryant won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002, all the more impressive considering how much energy they spent bickering with each other. O’Neal thought Bryant was a ballhog who wouldn’t settle for being the No. 2. Bryant retorted that O’Neal was out of shape and therefore not dependable late in games - and that was just part of it.

Yet both swear things were never as bad as they seemed in the media.

“All of that stuff going back and forth, I think it was done purposely. I know times that I would say stuff just be saying it,” O’Neal said. “But I can tell you for a fact, and you can ask Kobe this, our years together we never had one problem in practice. It was always, he said something that I thought he’d said, and I’d come back.

“Not only that, we never had a problem in a game. It was always on point. We always looked out for each other. It was all marketing. It was a duo that’s still talked about to this day, and I haven’t played with him for what, five years? Which means my marketing worked.”

Their feud became out of control by the time of their loss in the 2004 finals. When they committed to Bryant that summer with a max deal to keep the free agent, it was time for O’Neal to go.

He was dealt to Miami, where he won another title two years later teamed with Dwyane Wade. Bryant and the Lakers never got past the first round of the playoffs the next three years before reaching the finals last season.

“Now that they look back on it, they kind of miss the times that they had,” Wade said, “and I’m sure they’ll enjoy this weekend.”

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