When Ego is the Enemy

Following the All-Star break in February, 2004, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to find their groove. They boasted one of the most dominant duos in the game as Shaquille O’Neal was finally getting healthy for a playoff push, and Kobe Bryant was entering his prime at age 26. From 2000-2002 the Lakers won three consecutive NBA championships. After a one-year hiatus, they were knocking on the door of another world title.

Few teams had the personnel to match-up with Shaq’s enormous size and strength, or Kobe’s dynamic athleticism. O’Neal won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2000, and was the Finals MVP for each of their three championship seasons together. Meanwhile, Kobe emerged as a one-man wrecking crew while O’Neal went out with an injury, famously scoring 40 points in nine consecutive games. 

The Lakers finished the regular season on a 24-7 run to secure the third seed in the rugged Western Conference. While numerous issues festered below the surface, head coach Phil Jackson felt confident that a 10th NBA championship ring was within reach.

The Lakers reached the Finals as heavy favorites to defeat the upstart Detroit Pistons coached by NBA vagabond Larry Brown. Detroit was the antithesis of the Lakers - they lacked star power and played a slow, physical brand of basketball. Rip Hamilton was the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, ranking him 28th in the league. By comparison, Kobe averaged 24 ppg (4th) and Shaq averaged 21.5 (11th).

Brown knew that the Pistons were over-matched, but he sensed the Lakers had a flaw that could prove fatal… Kobe Bryant’s burgeoning ego.

And so they laid a trap. 

The Pistons decided to do something truly ridiculous - they defended Shaq without help and encouraged him to shoot as much as possible despite the fact that O’Neal led the  NBA in field goal percentage making 58.4% of his shots during the regular season. 

Brown believed that Kobe was driven by a burning desire to prove himself, having yet to win an MVP in the finals or regular season, and that he would grow restless watching Shaq dominate inside. Here’s how Pistons guard Chauncy Billips described the plan:

“Our game plan was very calculated. We knew we were going to play Shaq straight-up. We knew there was no way we could stop Shaq straight-up. And there was no way we could stop Kobe straight-up. But, if we’re going to play Shaq straight-up, [the Lakers] eyes are going to get big, which means they’re going to keep throwing it down there…

But what’s going to happen is Mr. Bryant is going to get a little discouraged with getting no touches and now the second half comes around… now he’s pressing. He’s going to start coming down and just breaking the offense. When you do that, you’re done - you’re playing right into our hands. Even if you start making those shots, you’re finished.”

And that is exactly what happened. Despite Shaq shooting 63% from the field and averaging nearly 27 points per game in the Finals, Kobe repeatedly hijacked the offense in fourth quarter after fourth quarter, taking shots that Jeff Pearlman compared to “a drunk high schooler popping threes on a dare from Potsie and Ralph.”

Bryant shot a paltry 38% from the field, taking almost 30 more shots than Shaq, as the Pistons won the championship four games to one.

Kobe is often lauded as one of the most competitive players in NBA history. How could someone so devoted to winning fall for such an ingenious ploy?

His ego got in the way. According to teammate Kareem Rush:

“Kobe wanted to be the MVP of the series - guaranteed. Shaq got the first three MVPs, and Kobe wanted it. That’s why he kept shooting, even when shooting that much made no sense. He always felt this need to validate himself. It was selfish, and it killed us.

Kobe wasn’t just playing for a championship, he was playing for legacy. Michael Jordan had all those MVPs under his belt, Shaq had those MVPs under his belt. It burned Kobe. He wanted his.”

Kobe’s desperate need for validation cost the Lakers more than a championship, it derailed the entire franchise. Jackson, a hall of fame coach in his own right, told management that he was done coaching Kobe, “He’s too selfish.” Kobe vowed to never play with Shaq again, threatening to leave in free agency if O’Neal wasn’t traded. Buss acquiesced. Shaq was traded to Miami, Jackson’s contract was not renewed, and the Lakers missed the playoffs the following season winning only 34 games.

Ryan Holiday warns us about the danger of our ego subverting a greater purpose. 

“Ego is its own worst enemy. It hurts the ones we love, too. Our families and friends suffer for it. So do our customers, fans, and clients.”

Eventually, time would offer the gift of perspective. In the twilight of his career, Kobe reflected on that lost ring and admitted, “I was an idiot.” 

Can we learn to recognize our own ego before it wreaks havoc on our own teams, relationships, and families?

Food for thought.

- Nate Sanderson

Story adapted from Jeff Pearlman’s excellent book, Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty

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