Kobe Bryant once punched a Lakers teammate over $100, and it wasn’t Shaquille O’Neal

Robert Marvi
10 Min Read

The New York Times bestselling author Jeff Pearlman just released a new book entitled, “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” and it paints Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in a not-so-flattering light.

One interesting story highlighted in the book is the time Bryant punched teammate Samaki Walker during the 2001-02 season over what seemed like a somewhat trivial issue.

“As he marinates within the silence of his room, Walker replays the events of the past 24 hours — a string of happenings that, weirdness-wise, rivals anything he has experienced through his first 26 years of existence,” wrote Pearlman. “It’s the previous day, and the Lakers are holding a morning shootaround at Gund Arena in Cleveland. Toward the end of the session, as ritual dictates, the members of the team line up to launch half-court shots, with the winner collecting $100 from each participant.

“As befits an organization coming off two straight NBA championships, the enlistees form a Who’s Who of modern basketball achievement. There’s Robert Horry, the dead-eye three-point gunner whose penchant for late-game heroics is legend. There’s Rick Fox, the savvy small forward whose cinematic appearances and marriage to Vanessa Williams make him Tinseltown royalty. There’s Brian Shaw, the cerebral point guard and locker room sage. There’s Derek Fisher, the fast-talking spark plug from tiny Arkansas-Little Rock. There’s Shaquille O’Neal, the larger-than-life’s-largest-life 7-foot-1, 325-pound center. There’s Kobe Bryant, the sixth-year straight-out-of-high-school superstar many consider to be the second coming of Michael Jordan.

“The men line up to shoot. And miss. And shoot. And miss. And shoot. And miss. Familiar trash talk serves as the soundtrack. Slang barbs. Surface insults. Finally Bryant — 6-foot-6, 212 pounds of long, sinewy muscle — picks up a ball, takes a bunch of steps behind the half-court line, trots four long paces forward, elongates his arms, pushes forward, and … and … and …


Walker owed Bryant $100, but he told Bryant he would pay up a little later because he didn’t have the money on him at the time.

Instead of giving the power forward a couple of days to relinquish the debt, Bryant angrily confronted him the very next day on the team bus.

“He marches toward Walker, glares downward,” wrote Pearlman. “‘Yo Maki,’ he says, ‘you gonna give me my f—— money?’

“Walker pretends not to hear, so Bryant gets louder. ‘Maki, where the f— is my f—— money?’

“This time Walker doesn’t merely ignore him.

“This time, Walker doesn’t merely laugh at him.

“No, this time Walker waves him off like an errant gnat. ‘I’ll give you your money,’ he says, ‘when I have it.’

“To Walker, it’s all a joke. He and Bryant entered the league together, and the majority of players on the roster view Kobe’s latest efforts not unlike MC Hammer’s forever lampooned 1994 attempt at gangsta rap. Bryant is a ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re very welcome’ type of guy — polite, suburban, cultured, well-heeled. Truth be told, he’s always been a clumsy fit for this league of superstars with well-earned street cred — the Allen Iversons and Stephon Marburys. The cursing is the latest addition to Bryant’s paint-by-numbers approach to sounding hardened, and it’s as authentic as $5 mink.

“’It was his Beanie Sigel phase,’ says McCoy. ‘Really fake.’

“Now, if one looks closely enough, he can see the steam rising from Bryant’s ears. The four-time All-Star leans past Fox, draws back his right fist, lunges across Walker’s head, and — pop!— punches him in the right eye.

“For a moment, everyone on the bus freezes. Just for a moment.

“Walker, 28 pounds heavier than Bryant, gazes toward [Jelani] McCoy, his closest friend on the roster. ‘Did this f—– just hit me?’ he says. ‘Did he just hit me?’

“McCoy nods. Walker rises, clenches a fist, and — whoosh! Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s King Kong Bundy-esque bodyguard and constant companion, charges from five rows up. He wraps Walker in a bear hug, but not before Walker launches his Discman at Bryant’s head. Not surprisingly, the career 63 percent free throw shooter misses. The device hits the floor and cracks apart. Walker is screaming at Bryant. ‘F— you, b—-!’ Bryant is screaming at Walker. ‘No, f— you!’ O’Neal, whose relationship with the young guard is both well chronicled and chronically awful, looks Walker in the face. ‘You’ve gotta f— him up!’ he says in his deep baritone. ‘F—. Him. Up.’

“Walker nods, then gazes toward Phil Jackson, the veteran head coach, whose ability to grasp (and manipulate) the psyches of his players is a longtime calling card. ‘Phil,’ Walker says, ‘can you please stop the bus?’

“In his two and a half seasons with Los Angeles, Jackson has endured some absolutely crazy moments. He’s watched awful Shaq movies and long lines of hotel lobby groupies. He’s had a player turn up with a ‘please excuse his absence from practice’ note from a hotel clerk and wondered whether certain men were performing under the influence.

“Now, the Lakers are somewhere in downtown Cleveland. Jackson has no great desire to have his two-time defending champions pull to the side of a road in downtown Cleveland. However, he sees what his players also see in Kobe Bryant — a selfish, entitled, me-first human whose social skills lag far behind his athletic gifts. ‘Hey,’ he says to the driver, ‘pull over when you can.’

“The bus stops. Walker, his voice emotionless, looks at Bryant, who gazes toward the floor. ‘Well?’ he says. ‘You wanna step off and take care of this?’

“Bryant ignores his teammate. The silence is palpable.

“’That’s what I thought,’ Walker says. A pause. ‘You little b—-.’

Later, Walker had another chance to get back at Bryant, but the guard realized he had messed up and seemed profusely apologetic.

“In his mind, Walker imagines a scenario in which he yanks Bryant aside and beats the snot out of him,” wrote Pearlman. “He doesn’t merely want to hit Kobe Bryant. He wants to hurt him. Walker is a product of the inner city, a man whose time in Columbus taught him how to handle business. ‘I’m gonna f— that boy up,’ he tells O’Neal at one point. ‘There’s gonna be nothing left of him.’

“This is what Walker is pondering when he notices the light blinking on his hotel room phone; when he listens to a sobbing Kobe Bryant; when he realizes his teammate isn’t exactly a model of emotional stability.

“Later in the evening, shortly before tipoff against the Cavs, Walker is on the treadmill at Gund Arena. He is still angry, though the rage has subsided. This is what it is to be a professional athlete. You set distractions aside. You move on. You march forward. You focus on the task at hand. You …

“’Hey, Samaki.’

“It’s Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard.

“’I’ve got this f—– outside,’ he says. ‘He wants to talk to you.’

“Moments later, Bryant approaches. His voice is unusually soft. His shoulders are hunched. He looks wounded, as if he’s about to once again weep.

“’Maki,’ he says, ‘I’m really sorry. That’s on me.’

“The forward stops jogging and steps from the treadmill. He actually feels surprising pangs of sympathy for the kid. Walker — 100-mile-an-hour motorcycle roadster — knows what it is to mess up.

“’Listen,’ he says, ‘we’re good. Seriously, we’re good. But you can’t go around hitting another man. There are some issues you’ve gotta work out. You can’t live life this way.’”

Often times, there will be incidents not too dissimilar to this one that occur on NBA teams throughout a long season.

But since it occurred on the Lakers and involved Bryant, it somehow seemed much more significant.

The dust-up clearly didn’t hinder the team too much, as it proceeded to win its third straight NBA title a few months later.

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Robert is a native of Santa Monica, Calif., and a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been an avid NBA fan since he was a little kid in the mid '90s and fell in love with the Nick Van Exel-led Lakers teams. He truly cherishes the Kobe Bryant-era of Lakers basketball and the five world championships that came with it, and is looking forward to the team's next NBA title.