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Fourth NBA title with Los Angeles Lakers enhances Kobe Bryant's legacy

ORLANDO — He stood on a champion's podium in the middle of an arena and waited for his moment to arrive. Sure enough, when the lights went down, all of Kobe Bryant's ghosts had vanished.

No one was whispering about the presence of Shaquille O'Neal. No one was wondering about the future of LeBron James. No one was questioning whether the guy with all the shots was too selfish to lead a team to the promised land.

It was just Bryant and his Los Angeles teammates standing at center court for a trophy presentation after beating the Magic in Game 5 to win the NBA Finals on Sunday night. Three-year-old daughter Gianna was in his arms, and a legacy was finally in his grasp.

"I just don't have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism anymore," Bryant said later. "That's the biggest thing."

And so, in years to come, this will be remembered as Bryant's moment. This will be recalled as his title. That's not meant to belittle Phil Jackson or anyone else in Los Angeles, for everyone in the organization played a role, and everyone shares in the glory.

But day after day and series after series, no one contributed more than Bryant. And maybe in retrospect no one needed it more.

It had been seven long years since Bryant had last won a title. And it had been five years since he had essentially chased O'Neal from Los Angeles. Through all that time, he was ridiculed by O'Neal and frustrated by his inability to win without his longtime teammate. James was emerging as the league's top star, and Bryant was receding in stature.

No matter what he accomplished, including the league MVP award a year ago, Bryant was never far from being reminded that he had not won a title without O'Neal.

"It was annoying. It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple," Bryant said. "I would cringe every time. It was a challenge I was 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."

He is among the greatest players of his generation, but for Kobe Bean Bryant, it has never seemed as if it were enough. He wanted more than the insane money. More than the out-of-control fame. More than the MVP award, the 11 All-Star Games and the wall space being held for him at the Hall of Fame. Certainly more than the three NBA titles he shared with O'Neal.

For Bryant, it is as if he wanted acknowledgement that his is a special kind of greatness. A greatness measured not by this generation, but by all those from the past and future, too.

"It feels like I'm dreaming right now," Bryant said. "I can't believe this moment is here."

Understand, this is all relative. It's not like Bryant was Roger Clemens nearing his 40th birthday without a championship. And he was not John Elway with a bunch of near-misses before finally getting his ring.

Bryant, 30, already has won more NBA championships than Dr. J, and Karl Malone and Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. And if his previous three rings had come with O'Neal at his side, well, then, all five of Magic Johnson's titles were shared with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In other words, this title does not create Bryant's legacy. It simply enhances it. It frames it.

And it doesn't really matter that he was brilliant for only small stretches of this five-game series. That he blew Game 3 down the stretch and turned to Derek Fisher for the biggest shots in Game 4. In time those details will become less pertinent.

"He's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him," Jackson said. "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's a demanding leader, and that's been great for him and great to watch."

It is true, Bryant is not easy to embrace. He doesn't do glib, and at times, he barely manages civil. He has rubbed teammates, opponents and fans the wrong way. Some of it is arrogance and entitlement, but much of it is the relentless way he plays.

You saw that in Game 5. The Lakers made their move at a time chosen by Bryant. They were trailing 40-36 when Bryant delivered a pass to Fisher for a 3-pointer. Next time down, he passed to Trevor Ariza for another 3-pointer. Bryant scored the next basket himself then went back to Ariza for another 3-pointer.

In 100 seconds, Bryant had three assists, one rebound, one steal and one field goal on an 11-0 run that put Los Angeles on top for good.

As memories go, this one will suffice. A great player doing it all when it mattered most. That was Kobe Bryant. Then, and forever.

By the numbers

10 NBA titles for Phil Jackson, a record, one more than Boston's Red Auerbach

1 Coach of the year honor in 18 seasons for Jackson, who some say owes his titles to stars such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant

4 Titles for Kobe Bryant, one without Shaquille O'Neal as a teammate

209 Postseason victories for Jackson, a record. Among active coaches, the Spurs' Gregg Popovich is next, with 102.

Fourth NBA title with Los Angeles Lakers enhances Kobe Bryant's legacy 06/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 4:55pm]
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