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Dave McMenamin


Kobe leads ... and the Lakers follow

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Jun 18 2009 9:21AM

ORLANDO -- He finally did it alone by realizing he couldn't do it by himself.

Kobe Bryant is back on top of the mountain, only this time he brought all his teammates with him.

"To actually do it and see it all happen, it feels like I'm dreaming right now," Bryant said after the Lakers' 99-86 Game 5 victory to beat the Magic in The Finals, 4-1. "I can't believe this moment is here."

After news conference after postseason news conference of Bryant biting his lip to guard against grinning, and training his face to sacrifice smiling until his mission was accomplished, Bryant beamed bright enough to light up the sky all the way from Florida to Figueroa Street in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

His special Finals-edition sneakers with his season statistics splashed on both shoes in staccato bits of gold numerals will need a big ol' No. 4 added to them to represent his ring count and a No. 1 to commemorate him being presented with the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award for the first time in his career.

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Bryant was named the inaugural winner of the honor since it was named after Russell, winning with a unanimous 9-0 media vote. He finished with 30 points, six rebounds, four blocks and five assists on Sunday and averaged 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists for the series.

All of the turmoil of his last eight seasons -- the feud with Shaquille O'Neal, demanding a trade, Finals losses to Detroit and Boston -- were washed away by a champagne shower and left in a puddle on the floor of the visiting locker room at Amway Arena.

"It felt like a big old monkey was off my back," Bryant said.

But as much as the 2009 Finals were about Kobe the individual, they were more about Kobe and how he relates to others. He used to be the kid at play time who wouldn't share, now he brings everybody a cupcake on their birthdays. When the final buzzer sounded, Bryant was just another sweaty guy wearing purple, jumping in a circle with his teammates.

"He's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after passing Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in Finals history with 10 championships. "That's really important for him to have learned that, because he knew that he had to give to get back in return. He's become a giver rather than just a guy that's a demanding leader."

In the first quarter he flew solo when the team needed a boost. Bryant was trapped in the corner by two Magic defenders, turning the ball over and aggravating the ring finger on his right hand that he dislocated earlier in the season at the same time. Orlando streaked up the other end and Rafer Alston flipped in a layup to put the Magic up by nine.

Bryant motioned for the Lakers to call timeout. He then re-taped his finger that hurt so bad he was doubled over in pain and mere minutes later, went on a personal 5-0 run to keep the game from getting away.

It was all Kobe and it was an important juncture in the game, but wasn't nearly as crucial as the run Bryant and his teammates went on together not long thereafter.

Bryant orchestrated the initial 11 points of a 16-0 spurt that gave L.A. control of the game in the second quarter. First there was an assist to Derek Fisher for a 3-pointer. Then a steal. Then another assist -- this time to Trevor Ariza for three. Then a jumper of his own. Then a defensive rebound and one more assist to Ariza for the third three of the run.

In the years since L.A.'s three straight championships in the early 2000s, when we talked about the Lakers and streaks, it was Bryant's nine straight 40-point games in 2003 or his four straight 50-point games in '07.

"He's grown," said Derek Fisher, the Game 4 hero who has grown with Bryant since coming in as a rookie with him in 1996. "He's doing everything that we could ever ask him to do in terms of leading the team ... trying to be the type of guy that guys will follow as opposed to just dominating performances by himself and then expecting everyone to catch up to him."

He finally allowed himself to think championship with eight minutes and 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter after hitting a pull-up 3-pointer to put L.A. up by 16. Bryant walked down the court pumping his fist, stopping briefly to bow with his hands held together. It was as if he was saying a prayer of thanks to the Basketball Gods before joining his teammates in the huddle.

"I knew I had to knock it down because they were starting to surge," Bryant said. "I could feel it."

Maybe all that time playing second fiddle to O'Neal made him appreciate how it feels to be the rest of the band when it was his time to hold the microphone.

Even though it was Bryant and his teammates' night, O'Neal was still a topic of interest in the postgame press conference.

After his Finals MVP performance, Kobe Bryant appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.
Courtesy of NBC

"It was just silly," Bryant said of all the talk about him not being able to win it all without the Big Aristotle on his side. "Every team has a dynamic duo.

"It was like Chinese water torture; just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. 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.'"

There is no argument as to who is the winner between Shaq and Kobe right now. Kobe earned the title for the 2009 season and series MVP on Sunday.

If he's escaped Shaq for now, there is another all-time great that Bryant couldn't separate himself from on Sunday. He'll always remind us of Michael Jordan because he just shares so many qualities with the man considered to be the best ever -- from the same 6-foot-6, 200-pound body frame to the identical cold-blooded frame of mind in the clutch.

Kobe's top highlights of the night were vintage Jordan -- a baseline dunk with his tongue wagging in MJ mode in the second quarter and a falling-to-the-floor bank shot in the third that made you think of Jordan's sleight-of-hand switcheroo against L.A. in the '91 Finals. But those highlights won't replace his jutted-jaw stare as the iconic image you'll remember him for during these Finals, a face belonging only to the Mamba.

When it was over, after Bryant had smiled his stifled smile and lifted his teammates to the top of the mountain with him, a fan held up a sign that read "Do You Believe in Kobe?", taking liberty with The Lovin' Spoonful's song lyrics.

You have to now.'s Dave McMenamin covered the Lakers throughout The NBA Finals. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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