"If you've got friends out there you're not as close with as you used to be, call them right now, text them right now," Shaquille O'Neal tells PEOPLE

By Jason Duaine Hahn
January 25, 2021 02:45 PM
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With Jan. 26th marking the first anniversary of Kobe and Gianna Bryant's shocking deaths, NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal is hoping others take time to contact loved ones and reconnect with old friends.

It was 12 months ago on Tuesday that Bryant and 13-year-old Gianna died in a helicopter accident along with seven other victims in Calabasas, California.

The morning was an especially painful one for O'Neal, whose legacy is forever tied to Bryant — the duo won three consecutive NBA titles for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000 to 2002, and remain the last team to have achieved such a feat.

Over the past year, O'Neal has spent time with Bryant's parents, Joe and Pamela Bryant, and plans to speak with them on the day of the anniversary.

Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty

"I'm just going to call his mom and dad and tell them I love them," the 48-year-old NBA Hall of Famer tells PEOPLE. "I recently got to hang out with them in Vegas ... His mom reminds me of my mom, so wonderful. And his dad reminds me of my dad. I just had fun hanging out with them."

"[Bryant's] two sisters and their kids, they call me Uncle Shaq," he adds. "I'm just going to call them and tell him that I love them and if they need anything from me, they can contact me."

Shaquille O'Neal
| Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

A few months before Bryant and Gianna's deaths, O'Neal suffered another loss — his sister, Ayesha Harrison-Jex, died in Oct. 2019 after a three-year battle with cancer. Her death, coupled with Bryant's, reminded O'Neal of the importance of keeping in contact with relatives and friends.

"When it comes to relationships, when something happens, if you have to say to yourself, 'I should have,' then you got to start doing it now," he says. " 'I should have called them more. I should have did this, I should have did that.' You don't want to make the same mistake with the next friend."

"If you've got friends out there you're not as close with as you used to be, call them right now, text them right now. Tell them you miss them, tell them you think about them," he continues. "Tell them you love them. Get together for lunch. Hash things out, talk things out. Because you don't want to say when it's too late, 'Man, I wish I could have,' or 'I should have did this.' "

To live up to that, O'Neal recently contacted members of his eighth-grade basketball team who played with him in Germany. He plans to fly them and their families out for a reunion, and to thank them for their playing days together.

"From the passing of Kobe and my sister, I realized I should have talked to them way more, way more," he says.

One bright spot for O'Neal and the city of Los Angeles following that tragic accident came eight months later when the Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, earned their first NBA title in 10 years.

"It was amazing for the city, amazing for Kobe's family, for Kobe's legacy," O'Neal says of the win. "It was a horrific time, that had a legendary storybook ending. That LeBron was able to bring that back. I'm telling you now, if the fans were able to come [if not for the coronavirus pandemic], the city would have been on fire."

"We've had 16 and 17 championships," he adds, "but that probably would've been the most celebrated championship in Laker history."