It's hard to break old habits, and after eight years of bickering, sniping and cockeyed stares, and a celebrated divorce that put the entire country between them, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are still arguing. They can't even agree on a bad analogy.
Earlier this week, O'Neal warned that it would be dangerous for Bryant to drive the lane when the Los Angeles Lakers play the Miami Heat.
"If you've got a Corvette that runs into a brick wall, you know what's going to happen," O'Neal, the Heat center, told ABC.
Bryant, the Lakers star, protested the comparison, telling Los Angeles reporters, "I'm so far from a Corvette, it's not even funny." Bryant said he was more like a Lamborghini.
To which O'Neal, speaking to Miami reporters, said: "No, he's not. He's a Corvette."
The "am-not, are-too" dialogue could probably go on like this for months, but the truth is, the combatants in this longtime rivalry are not eager to talk about each other, or to each other.
It has been five months since the Lakers chose Bryant as their franchise player and traded O'Neal, and many have grown weary of the nonstop analysis of the breakup. They face each other Saturday at Staples Center, for the first time since they parted ways. If network and league executives are drooling over the potential ratings bonanza, the participants seem ready to get it over with.
"Every game means a lot, but this game Saturday, believe it or not, doesn't even make my top 100 battles," O'Neal told reporters Thursday night in Sacramento. "I've been in the league 12 years, and I've had to go up against a lot of people and do a lot of things, but they're trying to make it me against him, and I've always been a team player."
Before Friday's practice, Bryant playfully and sarcastically deflected every question about emotions, sentiment or justifying either team's decision.
"I'm going to have to fight back tears; it's going to be tough," he said. "I honestly don't have any sentiment either way. It's just basketball. It's like going to the park and playing the game at Rucker that everybody's talking about in the summertime. There's a lot of hype around the game. You do what you do. But there's no emotion or tough to play against him or anything like that. It's a game."
Though the league placed this game in its marquee slot on Christmas, Bryant said there was no personal intrigue.
"No, none, zero," he said.
At the Lakers' training complex, Bryant's teammates were similarly indifferent.
"If we win that game, they're not going to give us a ring," said Lamar Odom, who went to the Lakers in the O'Neal trade, along with Caron Butler and Brian Grant. (Butler has been suspended for Saturday's game for punching New Orleans guard Dan Dickau on Wednesday.)
As a basketball game, the stakes are not particularly compelling. Bryant's nondescript Lakers are 14-11 and struggling just to stay in the playoff hunt. O'Neal's team holds the best record in the East, at 21-7, and is riding a 10-game winning streak.
"We have a different path than they do," Bryant said. "They're obviously in contention right now, and we're trying to get there."
Last week, Bryant began a public-relations blitz that included three national television interviews and a rare public apology for the role he played in the Lakers' demise.
He also said he would like to apologize directly to O'Neal for mentioning his name to detectives investigating sexual assault charges against Bryant.