Superteams are a controversial topic among NBA fans. Some fans like to see a ton of top-tier talent on the same squad, while others argue that it’s bad for league-wide parity. The origins of the superteam is also a contested topic. Some say that the 2007-08 Boston Celtics with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were the firsts, while others point to LeBron James joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat as the catalyst of the “superteam era.”
However, according to NBA legend Gary Payton, the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers were actually the original superteam. That Lakers squad was comprised of four future Hall-of-Famers in Payton, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, but they ultimately lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games in the NBA Finals.
“That was an interesting year. When me and Karl [Malone] signed with the Lakers, I was coming for Shaq, and Karl was coming for me. So we were coming together. That was probably the first superteam with the four of us,” Payton said during an appearance on CBS Sports’ Nothing Personal with David Samson. “We were looking forward to that. Then you know what happened with Kobe. He got into a situation. Then you know what happened with Shaq. He got into a situation with Dr. Buss. So everything was kind of not meant to be. It was up in the atmosphere and God probably didn’t want it to happen.”
The locker-room tension that existed between O’Neal and Bryant during that time has been well-documented, and it ultimately ended with O’Neal being traded to the Heat. But when it comes to the relationship between Kobe and Shaq, Payton doesn’t think that the perception matches the reality. He compared the relationship between the two stars to that of brothers, and he made it clear that he doesn’t think that it was a factor in the team failing to reach their ultimate — and expected — goal of a championship.
“When we got into the season, it was just a little bit different,” Payton said. “I had heard about all of the tension between Shaq and Kobe. It wasn’t really like that. It was just that you had two brothers — the bigger brother and the little brother – and they were competitors. They wanted something out of the other one, the other one wanted something out of the other one and they were acting like brats. That’s it. That’s all it was. Just acting like brats.
“Big brother wanted little brother to respect him, little brother didn’t want to do it. Then you got the two big uncles to come, and that was me and Karl. So one of the uncles took one of the nephews, the other uncle took the other nephew, and I really got to know Kobe like that and he became really, really close to me and a little brother. As that was happening, we brought it all together and it was good. It was good … What people don’t understand, Karl didn’t play 62 games, Shaq didn’t play 39 or so, Kobe didn’t play about 35. We still made it to the championship. It was a thing that just wasn’t meant to be. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Payton only played a single season with the Lakers, but it was during that season that he developed a deep bond with Bryant — a bond that still resonates with him today. “I’m glad I got a chance to be on the team and meet Kobe because after that we became really, really close,” Payton said. “That kid was a kid that was really special, and he still should be here.”
Playing alongside Bryant gave Payton an opportunity to see another side of the Lakers legend that the outside world never really got the chance to witness, and because of that, Payton thinks that there were some misconceptions about Bryant due to his on-court demeanor. He also saw some similarities between himself and Bryant in the way that they approached the game.
“Nobody knew Kobe,” Payton said. “I got to know him as a person, as a young man. He wasn’t like that, what people think. Kobe was a guy, he had feelings, he had a lot of things going, but he just was a dog. He just was a guy who was grit on the basketball court, and a dog. He just did what he had to do to win. That’s it. That’s all it was. And I don’t have no problems with that. That’s the way you have to do it.
“It’s just like with me, I had to talk a lot of trash to get my game where I wanted it to be. I didn’t care what anybody thought about me on the court, that just is what it is. But off the court, I’m the sweetest guy. Kobe was the same guy, and people didn’t know that, and they didn’t get to know it.”
Payton didn’t get to win a ring with the Lakers, but he was ultimately able to win a championship alongside O’Neal in Miami in 2006. Plus, it sounds like the bond he built with Bryant in L.A. was equally as valuable.