Basketball great Shaquille O’Neal has paid an emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant from inside the Los Angeles Lakers’ Staples Center arena.
Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles hills on Sunday.
He was a five-time NBA champion who played for the Lakers throughout his 20-year career.
O’Neal played alongside Bryant at the Lakers.
O’Neal and colleagues from the TNT television network were supposed to be doing a pregame show before the Lakers’ game against city rivals the Clippers, but the game was postponed.
Instead, they sat at centre court, from where O’Neal recalled his former team-mate as a great player whose kids called him “Uncle Shaq”.
“The fact that we lost probably the world’s greatest Laker, the world’s greatest basketball player is just – listen, people are going to say ‘take your time and get better’, but this is going to be hard for me,” O’Neal said.
“I already don’t sleep anyway, but I’ll figure it out.”
O’Neal was with family members when he got the news of Bryant’s death and hoped it was not true.
“I didn’t want to believe it. I said to my son, ‘I hope some buttface made this up and it’s not true’.
“But then after getting all the calls…my spirit just left my body.”
He added: “I could never have imagined anything like this.
“I was thinking the other day I’ve never seen anything like this. All the basketball idols that I grew up (watching), I see them. They’re old.”
O’Neal and Bryant helped the Lakers win three straight championships from 2000 to 2002, but they occasionally feuded and O’Neal was traded to Miami in 2004.
He won another title there, while Bryant won two more with the Lakers.
O’Neal said that while they texted each other often, he had not seen Bryant since the final day of his career in 2016. He said on that day he told Bryant to score 50 points and Bryant instead scored 60.
“The fact that we’re not going to be able to joke at his Hall of Fame ceremony, we’re not going to be able to say, ‘Hi, I’ve got five (rings), you’ve got four,’ the fact that we’re not going to say ‘if we’d stayed together we could have got 10’, those are the things you can’t get back,” O’Neal said.
He said the death of Bryant has made him realise he needs to do more to stay in touch with family and friends.
“I’m going to try and do a better job, just reaching out and just talking to the people, rather than always procrastinating.
“Because you never know. Life is too short.”
O’Neal wished “I could be able to say one last thing to the people we lost…We should never take stuff like that for granted.”
O’Neal offered his condolences to Bryant’s “family, his mom, his dad, his sisters, the other families, everybody involved”.