Though his days on the court are long behind him, Shaquille O’Neal still had a few loose ends to tend to, one of which was clearing the air between a former teammate turned rival.
Shaq recently sat down with Kobe Bryant for an intimate one-on-one interview on TNT. Shaq has frequently called his pairing with Kobe “the most dominant one-two punch ever,” and, for what it’s worth, that isn’t far off from the truth. The team went to the NBA Finals four times between 2000 and 2004 and won three NBA championships in a row (which hasn’t been repeated since). While they had success on the court, the two had tension off of it, and in story-hungry Hollywood, their feud—while Shaq was on the Lakers and after he was traded—was ratings gold.
“Me and him sitting down, talking about old times,” Shaq, 46, tells PEOPLE of his talk with Kobe. “Actually some of the stories we were telling, we both forgot, but since we were sitting there, we recalled them very quickly. These are memories you can never take away.”
The talk featured a slew of surprising moments, such Kobe’s admission that he was ready to demand a trade to the Chicago Bulls if the Lakers resigned Shaq after their Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
In one of the most intimate moments of their conversation, Shaq reflected on the 2009 NBA All-Star Game in which he and Kobe were named co-MVPs of the game. That year, Shaq was traded from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns, which placed him in the Western Conference for the first time since he was traded from the Lakers. This gave Kobe and Shaq one last chance to play together on the same team.
It was revealed during their talk that Kobe gave the MVP trophy to Shaq’s son, Shareef, and it was this gesture that eventually changed Shaq’s feelings toward Kobe. This led Shaq to make a public apology to his former teammate, something almost unimaginable just a few years ago when he was roasting Kobe in rap songs and Kobe made swipes at him after winning his fifth championship.
The TNT interview, as entertaining as it may have been for viewers, was a public reconciliation between the two men that could have just as easily never happened. Today, both men’s retired jerseys hang from the rafters at Staples Center.
Yet, Shaq—who spoke with PEOPLE while serving as an ambassador for American Express in the lead up to this year’s All-Star Game—says the bad blood between them did have a positive side.
“I always tell people when it comes to the Kobe-Shaq story, the story would be less compelling if we didn’t win any championships,” he says. “Then it’d be, ‘Oh, they didn’t like each other. They didn’t win.’ But, we won three out of four, so I always tell people, what would I change? The answer is nothing. We won three out of four… I feel absolutely good about my career.”
While the famously loquacious Shaq can be satisfied with what he accomplished on the court, he can also be proud of his chapter as a studio analyst. Alongside Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, the foursome has made Inside the NBA one of the must-watch shows on television over the last decade (and it’s not unusual for the show to be just as—if not more—entertaining than the NBA game they’re analyzing.) This is thanks to the chemistry between them, but also because of Shaq’s short-temper with Charles Barkley, which makes things pretty heated at times.
“Yeah, sometimes he does,” Shaq says when asked if Barkley gets under his skin. “But that also makes the show great. You’d want a bunch of robots up there talking. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t.”
Thanks to their hilarious banter, self-deprecating jokes and insightful analysis, the on-air team was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2016.
“I think the good thing is they allow us to inject a lot of humor into the show,” Shaq says. “We realize that if we’re going to keep you up into the wee hours of the night, we want to entertain you and make you laugh.”