They were teammates until a high-profile breakup last season. Now National Basketball Association stars Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat face one another as opponents on Christmas Day in Los Angeles. The game could be overshadowed by the feud between the two former teammates.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were a formidable tandem for the Los Angeles Lakers, leading the team to three straight NBA titles between 2000 and 2002. But the Lakers did not make the NBA finals in 2003, and this past season Los Angeles were upset by the Detroit Pistons in the finals. Also since 2002, the relationship between O'Neal and Bryant has soured in public.

The Lakers' poor performance eventually led to the firing of former coach Phil Jackson and O'Neal being traded to the Miami Heat. O'Neal says he knew when Jackson's firing was announced that his days in Los Angeles were numbered.

"Usually when something like that goes down, I am the first or second person to know about it. So when he was fired without my knowledge, I knew that things were changing. And I did not want to be a part of that, so I asked to be traded," he said.

The Lakers made it clear that their plans centered on Kobe Bryant, who was re-signed to prevent him from becoming a free agent this season. But Byrant's image was tarnished by rape charges brought against him in Colorado. The criminal charges have been dropped, but a civil trial is ongoing.

During his criminal trial, Bryant had told Colorado police that Shaquille O'Neal had paid various women to keep quiet about sexual encounters with the big star center. The statements only widened the rift between the two players. Their division was further aggravated when Bryant said in an interview that he had tried to contact O'Neal to apologize, but had not gotten through on the telephone.

Kobe Bryant
"I was able to get a message to him through a mutual friend. But December 25 sounds like a good day to me to kind of talk to him and tell him that I never meant to bring anything of his personal business out into the light like that," Bryant said.

O'Neal says that he has nothing to say about Bryant's statement, and he is not interested in exacting any revenge on his former teammate. But O'Neal has made it clear he will not take it easy on Bryant in Saturday's game.

"You know it is not something that I think about because I am not that kind of player," said O'Neal. "But of course if you have a Corvette [a fast sports car] that runs into a brick wall, you know what is going to happen."

Kobe Bryant says that he knows there will be many Shaquille O'Neal fans at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. But the Lakers' guard is not looking for anything out of the ordinary from his former teammate.

"We have had our share of battles in practice and nobody has been able to see it. We go at it, man," Kobe Bryant said. "You know I have a great deal of respect for him as a basketball player because of all that we accomplished here together. So playing with [against] me on the court on Saturday, it is going to be just like we are scrimmaging in practice. The only thing is, now the doors are open and everyone can see us go at it."

Former NBA Star Charles Barkley says anyone who thinks there will not be a personal rivalry between Bryant and O'Neal is lying. Lamar Odom, who was traded to the Lakers from Miami in exchange for O'Neal, says that an angry Shaquille O'Neal can hurt the Lakers in another way - by scoring against them.

O'Neal has helped lead Miami to 20 wins and seven losses while Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are struggling with 13 wins and 11 losses. O'Neal also has formed another powerful tandem with Miami guard Dwayne Wade, who is averaging more than 23 points per game.