Kobe said the never-ending question about whether he could win a title without his old teammate was “idiotic,” “silly” and “annoying,” but it wasn’t going away until he did what he did Sunday.
Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to their 15th NBA crown, defeating the Orlando Magic in five games courtesy of a 99-86 victory Sunday night. While this is Bryant’s fourth ring, it’s his first without O’Neal and as such the one that redefines his career and, indeed, ends the Shaq discussions.
It secures his legacy as one of the greatest players in NBA history and adds some measure of proof to the teammate testimonials that he isn’t the same me-first, often petulant player of his youth.
It wasn’t Kobe’s 32 points a game this series or Finals MVP honors that changed everything. It’s that he finally became the leader of a championship team, the center of a group that was built around him and the star who learned he couldn’t prosper until he stopped trying to do it alone.
Far away, O’Neal even acknowledged as much, admitting things were different now. Shaq turned his old vulgar rap, a taste-test taunt about Kobe, and turned it on himself in a postgame Tweet, the modern mea culpa of the NBA alpha male.
Kobe was just glad it was all over.
“It was like Chinese water torture,” Bryant said of the Shaq questions. “I would cringe every time. I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept it 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.”
Five years after O’Neal had left the Lakers, in what essentially boiled down to a Shaq or Kobe decision, the big man still shadowed over the franchise. O’Neal had gone off and won his own fourth title with Miami in 2006, proving himself with a Kobe-less ring.
Bryant had to respond, particularly with Shaq’s return to title contention looming if a potential offseason trade to Cleveland gets made.
So this was Kobe’s team and it was Kobe’s time and no one understood the stakes more than Kobe himself. Year after year he had to answer to L.A. fans about why the Lakers couldn't win it all anymore. The three-title run from 2000-02 collapsed during a Western Conference semifinals loss to San Antonio in 2003 and then an NBA Finals defeat to Detroit in '04. Soon after, Shaq was gone, Kobe was in charge and the franchise stalled.
Personally, Bryant was embroiled in legal trouble in Colorado and then went nuclear on the front office, even threatening to run over to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers.
He was a mess, almost impossible for his fans to defend. Eventually, though, he reconciled with the Lakers, watched an influx of talent arrive (“Christmas presents that came early”) and got the team to the Finals a year ago, only to fall short to Boston.
After last season’s finale, Celtics fans taunted the Lakers as they rode the bus to the team’s hotel. Players even claimed rocks were thrown at the windows. By the time the team returned, the players weren’t just disappointed, they were angry. So they gathered as a group in the lobby and talked. Bryant, approaching 30 now, no longer the league’s boy king and about to cede best-player honor to LeBron James(notes), knew this opportunity could be fleeting. He entered the NBA at age 18 and has long maintained it isn’t a player’s age, but the miles on his knees, that ends a career. (He has now played 13 seasons and more than 1,100 NBA games.)
The Lakers had the pieces, they sought an unqualified captain. It wasn’t Kobe’s game that needed to rise up and he knew it was long past time to do something about it.
Phil Jackson related a time early in Bryant’s career, when he was a precocious 22-year-old who thought it would all come easy but was hurting the team by seeking individual glory.
“So I talked to him a little bit about leadership and his ability to be a leader,” Jackson said.
“I’m ready to be a captain now,” Kobe said.
“But no one is ready to follow you,” Jackson shot back.
It’s why Bryant had to deal with the Shaq asterisk – but Magic Johnson never had to apologize for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Larry Bird for Kevin McHale or Michael Jordan for Scottie Pippen.
The Lakers had two stars earlier this decade and they couldn’t have won without Bryant’s athletic brilliance. The belief, however, was always that it was Jackson and O’Neal who provided the base for the team to flourish.
Kobe was a leading scorer, but not a leader of anything else. His on-court performance made his off-court personality tolerable. He isn’t solely to blame for the soap opera, but he was a central figure in it. And when Shaq (and briefly Jackson) left, it tellingly foundered.
So whether Bryant thought the Shaq question was fair didn’t matter. He took a mature route and decided that rather than challenge the assumption, he’d channel the emotion. It’s what fueled this, what helped deliver Sunday night.
“I’m dreaming right now,” he said. “I can’t believe this moment is here.”
Far away, from out of his past and no longer haunting his future, Shaquille O’Neal was Twittering his congratulations, offering his penance, acknowledging that the questions are over.
Kobe Bryant had led the Lakers to the title, had stepped out of Shaq’s shadow once and for all.