With just a few days to go before the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Celebration of Life memorial at the Staples Center on Monday, Shaquille O'Neal is "hurting." O'Neal and Bryant were teammates for eight seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three NBA championships. Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Jan. 26, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others.
"People who know me know I'm hurting," O'Neal, whose sister Ayesha Harrison-Jex died in October after a battle with cancer, told The New York Times. "In a million years, I never thought my younger sister would pass before me. And I never thought any of my teammates would go out before me — especially the way Kobe went out."
O'Neal, 47, and Bryant had a tumultuous relationship as teammates. They were on better terms after Bryant's retirement in 2016, but O'Neal was devastated when he realized the last time he spoke with Bryant was for a February 2018 TNT special. Bryant did keep in close contact with O'Neal's children. He sent O'Neal's son Shareef a message from Instagram hours before his death.
"He was good at always looking out for my boys, telling them to come work out at the Mamba gym, but I wish I would have communicated with him more," O'Neal said. "People in our lives, if we think about them, we should communicate a little bit more."
"The other day I was just thinking: 'I wonder what Nick Van Exel is doing. I wonder what Eddie Jones is doing,'" O'Neal continued, referring to two other former teammates. "I'm trying to do a better job now, at the tender age of 47, of just communicating with people."
O'Neal is hoping to do what he can for Bryant's surviving daughters, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 8 months. Ahead of his Super Bowl party, O'Neal told Entertainment Tonight the party's proceeds would go to the MambaOnThree Fund. He also assured Bryant's daughters he will do whatever he can.
"Babies, they don't call me 'Uncle Shaq' for a (sic) reason," O'Neal told ET. "You call me up, you find me – I'm not hard to find – I'll do whatever y'all need."
During All-Star Weekend in Chicago, O'Neal said hearing of Bryant's death was "very hard."
"I've never seen anything like this before," he told the Today Show. "I was at the house the day it happened and my son brought me the thing. You know how the internet is. Stop playing with me, get out of my face with that right now. Just stop and then I got the calls. A guy who helped me become as big as I am, and we will always be forever linked."
O'Neal went on to call Bryant's death a "relatable tragedy."
"We all jump in a minivan," he said. "We all do that with our kids. He was doing it in a helicopter. I looked at it more as not a great player, but a dad was lost and a coach was lost."0comments
The memorial is scheduled for Monday at the Staples Center, with proceeds from ticket sales going to the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation. It begins at 10 a.m. PT.
Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images