ORLANDO, Fla. – Kobe Bryant pulled Phil Jackson close, embracing his coach and looking him straight in the eyes. After all they’d been through, this was their moment, their championship, their time. This was the one to top all the others.
The one without Shaq. The one to pass Red.
Bryant’s seven-year chase of a coveted championship is finally over. He’s got his fourth title, and Jackson his record 10th. One year after failing in the finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
The Lakers earned their 15th title on Sunday night as Bryant scored 30 points and Pau Gasol added 14 and 15 rebounds in a 99-86 Game 5 win over the Orlando Magic, who ran out of comebacks.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s enormous shadow – at last. His fourth championship secured a strong case can be made for Bryant being the league’s best player since Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers.
Bryant, who averaged 32.4 points and was named finals MVP, said the can-he-win-without-Shaq talk annoyed him.
“It was like Chinese water torture,” he said. “I would cringe every time. I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it. You can say it until you’re blue in the face and rationalize it until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it.
“I think we as a team answered the call because they understood the challenge that I had, and we all embraced it.”
O’Neal, now with the Phoenix Suns, was glad to see Bryant win another title.
“Congratulations kobe, u deserve it,” O’Neal said on his Twitter page. “You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”
Bryant’s former coach now stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bow-legged Zen Master who won six league titles in the 1990s with Jordan in Chicago, now has won four with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in finals history.
“I’ll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red,” Jackson said. “He was a great guy.”
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top of their games.
Jackson, who once called Bryant “a selfish player” now sees the 30-year-old in a far different light.
“He’s learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him,” Jackson said. “That’s really important for him to have learned that because he knew that he had to give to get back in return, and so he’s become a giver rather than just a guy that a demanding leader. That’s been great for him and great to watch.”
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the post-season scowling, snarling, baring his teeth and all but breathing fire at anything in his path. For weeks, the all-star has worn his game face. His daughters called him Grumpy. Only when the victory was his in the final seconds did he allow himself to smile.
“I was just completely locked in,” he said. “I was grumpy for a while and now I’m just ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store.”
After the final horn, Bryant leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates, who bounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Bryant then gave his long, heartfelt hug and shared a few words with Jackson before sweeping up his little girls, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
It was just as he dreamed.
“It finally felt like a big old monkey was off my back,” he said. “It felt so good to be able to have this moment. For this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you’ve been through, it’s top of the list, man.”
Bryant had come up short twice in the finals before, in 2004 with O’Neal against Detroit, and again last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league’s best rivalry. The Lakers were beaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryant and his teammates had trouble shaking.
They went to training camp with one goal in mind. This was going to be their season, and except for a few minor missteps, it was.
In the locker room afterward, Bryant made sure Jackson got a champagne shower.
“He took his glasses off, threw his head back and soaked it all in because this is a special time,” Bryant said. “For us to be the team that got him that historic 10th championship is special for us.”
After beating Utah in the first round, Los Angeles was forced to go seven games against Houston, which lost centre Yao Ming to an injury. The Lakers then took care of Denver in six games, setting up a matchup with the shoot-from-their-hips Magic, who made their first visit to the finals since O’Neal took them there in 1995.
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had two overtime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying three-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic’s superhero centre, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points, took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, but was only 3-of-12 on threes for Orlando, which after living on the three, finally died by it.
The Magic went just 8-of-27 from long range.
“I thought our guys fought hard,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But they just had an answer for everything.”
Orlando was trying to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals. They had rallied to knock off Philadelphia and Boston, and then upset LeBron James and Cleveland in the conference finals. The Magic always felt they had a shot at history.
Bryant, though, wouldn’t be denied his place.
Orlando’s magical mystery tour came to a quick end.
“It hurts,” Howard said. “It hurts a lot. But you can learn a lot from losing. Sometimes you’ve got to lose to win.”
As teammates, Bryant and O’Neal were nearly unbeatable on the court. Off it, there were problems.
The pair won three straight titles together from 2000-02, but the Bryant-O’Neal dynasty became dysfunctional as both fought for control with Jackson publicly siding with his all-star centre. It all eventually crumbled in 2004 when O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.
Bryant was blamed for the breakup, and as the years passed, his many critics said he couldn’t win one by himself. He couldn’t, but the addition of Gasol, who came over in a stunning trade from Memphis last season, filled O’Neal’s massive void at centre and gave Bryant help.
Fisher, who has four rings himself, came back to L.A. after stints in Golden State and Utah and became a steadying force. If not for his two key three-pointers in Game 4, this series would still be going.
The Lakers were anything but The Kobe Show.
They got help from their entire roster as Odom, Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, who missed most of last season and the playoffs with a knee injury, came through.
It all came together.
“To have the attitude of we’re going to become a better defensive team, a better rebounding team and then to actually do it and to see it all happen, it feels like I’m dreaming.
“I can’t believe this moment is here.”
Notes: Jackson received a congratulatory phone call from Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. … Bryant had five assists and led the Lakers in each game.