Lakers Back Atop the Mountain; Bryant's Fourth Title Is His First as Main Star
Monday, June 15, 2009
ORLANDO, June 14 -- Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson hadn't been fitted for championship rings or held the Larry O'Brien trophy for seven years, a drought that seemed even longer given the arduous road for the Los Angeles Lakers since Shaquille O'Neal steamrolled through the New Jersey Nets in 2002. O'Neal left. Jackson left and came back. Bryant thought about leaving, stayed, demanded a trade but still stayed.
But while Bryant expressed his hunger for a fourth title with a clench-jawed glare, Jackson maintained the calm, cool demeanor that brought him nine championships. No matter their approaches while leading the Lakers back to the top, it led to the same gratifying result. With a 99-86 victory against the Orlando Magic on Sunday night at Amway Arena, the Lakers won the NBA Finals in five games and added a 15th championship banner to a storied franchise that has stayed relevant through the days of George Mikan, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, O'Neal and Bryant, and now Bryant.
"It feels like I'm dreaming right now. I can't believe this moment is here," Bryant said after scoring a game-high 30 points and winning the Finals MVP award.
After stumbling in his past two trips to the Finals against Detroit and Boston, Jackson finally broke his tie with Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach and now has 10 championships -- which is more than 28 other NBA franchises.
"I'll smoke a cigar tonight in memory of Red," Jackson said, wearing a gold hat with the Roman numeral "X" in purple. "Having won 10 championships is a remarkable accomplishment, there is no doubt about it."
Bryant averaged 32.4 points is the series and became the fourth player in NBA history to win a gold medal and an NBA championship the same season, joining Manu Ginóbili, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He also silenced criticism that he could not win a title without O'Neal.
"It was annoying," Bryant said. "It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. I would cringe every time. From the standpoint of responding to the challenge, from people saying I couldn't do it without him, that feels so good, because you prove people wrong."
But Bryant didn't do it alone. He needed some help all series from two players who got the blame for the Lakers' loss to Boston last June (Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom); an old backcourt mate for 10 of his 13 years in the league (Derek Fisher); and a Los Angeles native who grew up idolizing him (Trevor Ariza).
The Lakers became the first team since the 1989 Detroit Pistons to win a championship the year after losing in the Finals. When the game and the series appeared to be in his grasp with about 72 seconds remaining, Bryant couldn't contain his joy as he anxiously rocked and smiled on the bench during a timeout. "I just couldn't wait for the clock to go down," Bryant said. "I was waiting and waiting and waiting for time to expire so this moment could be here."
Once the game ended, Bryant raised his arms, then he hopped and pumped his fists. Gasol held his hands above his head and smiled. Then the Lakers players mobbed each other near their bench and Bryant took time to hug Fisher and then embraced Jackson. "It's been a long time since he had a champagne bath," Bryant said of Jackson. "So I made sure he became a part of our circle and we got him pretty good. He took his glasses off, threw his head back and soaked it all in because this was a special time, and for us to be the team that got him that historic 10th championship is special for us."
There had been speculation that the 63-year-old Jackson would consider retiring after winning another ring, but his agent, Todd Musburger, said after the game that Jackson will return to the Lakers next season.
"It was never a thought on Phil not completely fulfilling his contract," Musburger said. "He has one more year that he signed on for and I think the answer would have been the same had he not won the championship. I don't think he was ever in it to win the 10th. I don't think that was ever his motivation. He loves what he does."
Sunday's scene was a stark contrast to last season, after the Lakers were subjected to an embarrassing 39-point beatdown in Game 6 to the Celtics last June. The Lakers were downtrodden as they walked off the court, under a shower of confetti, at TD Banknorth Garden. Then, as they prepared to leave the arena, crazed and euphoric Celtics fans surrounded the team bus, forcing it to rock from the celebration. "It was like they wanted to tip it over," Odom said of the Celtics fans. "We were down. It would have been hard to get our attention. Some of us were in our own zone."
When the Lakers returned for training camp in October, they were all in the same zone, focused on getting back to the Finals and changing the end result. They were tested this postseason through some physically challenging series against the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, and they had a much different demeanor as their series against the Magic began. Bryant sported an angry facial expression that set the tone for his younger teammates, who were overwhelmed by that six-game loss to Boston.
Bryant was able to recover somewhat from the Finals loss by leading the United States to a gold medal win in the Beijing Olympics last summer. But the extended summer came at the expense of more wear and tear on his now 30-year-old body, as he endured another lengthy campaign. He complained of fatigue in the conference finals, but his determination to get a fourth ring drove him to block out all other distractions. He was finally able to smile, as he stood on the podium afterward. Bryant raised the golden trophy above his head, then placed it in front of his daughters, Natalia and Gianna, playfully rubbing it before his daughters followed suit.
The Magic was one layup (in Game 2) and one free throw (in Game 4) from possibly entering this game with an opportunity to close out the Lakers. Magic center Dwight Howard said his team planned to "make history," but it was unable to become the first team in 30 tries to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win in the Finals.
"I think when you get to this point and the team wins a championship, you have to give them credit," Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy said of the Lakers. "I thought they were terrific."