Suddenly, Bryant's at a New Level

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kobe Bryant supernova hit the NBA finals, at full force, Wednesday, leaving everyone else shuddering in the aftermath, and sifting through the outer limits of the basketball cosmos.

How long will he burn, how bright the blast, and how many opponents will be consumed by the flame?

"I can feel it kind of blossoming," said Bryant's high school coach, Gregg Downer. "I mean, in the next eight to 10 years, we're looking at four or five titles.

"I think Kobe would expect that. That's not going to surprise me if that happens, to make a [Michael] Jordan-like run."

Because, though he is still only 21, the Bryant Age started in the overtime of the Lakers' monumental Game 4 victory over the Indiana Pacers, and it is only beginning.

Because, in contrast to many moments of his first three-plus brilliant but unsettled Laker seasons, it was not accomplished separate from his teammates, but as a powerful piece of the total unit, now only one victory from a title.

"It was awesome," Indiana Coach Larry Bird, no stranger to epic efforts, said of Bryant's one-man Game 4 aria. "We were there, but we really weren't there on defense. I thought we got a hand up. He isolated us; he got the ball where he wanted to get it.

"Every shot was, you know, all net. I mean, it wasn't even close."

Said Shaquille O'Neal, who recalled Bryant's three airballs at the finish of the Lakers' series-ending Western Conference loss to Utah in 1997: "I went up to him, I said, 'You know what, remember this, see all these people laughing at you. Just remember, maybe one day we'll get to the big dance. Just remember it.'

"He's come a long way, and he's done a great job this year. I was very impressed with what he did last night, especially when I got fouled out and he winked and said, 'Don't worry about it. I got you.' "

Bryant, still hobbling on a sore left ankle that forced him to sit out Game 3, scored 28 points in Game 4, and most importantly timed his most explosive moments for when the Lakers needed him most--in overtime, after O'Neal had fouled out and the Pacers had kept charging.

O'Neal was the league's most dominant player, a near-unanimous most valuable player, and almost certainly will win the NBA finals MVP vote when and if the Lakers finish off the Pacers, either tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse or later.

But think of it: Bryant, seven years younger than O'Neal, is only getting better, more complete as a player and hungrier.

He won Game 2 against Phoenix in the second round on a buzzer-beating jumper. He carried the Lakers in several games in the grueling Portland series, including a towering across-the-statistical-sheet achievement in Game 7.

"The best thing about Kobe Bryant is he's going to be known as Kobe Bryant," veteran center John Salley said when asked if we are seeing the next Jordan. "He made that very clear against Portland and he made that very clear last night.

"A star is born. And he's the next one."

"We saw a little more of Kobe Bryant."

The most shocking thing to many Laker observers isn't that Bryant elevated his game when Conseco Fieldhouse rocked and the Lakers most desperately needed him--he has done that many times in his career.

No, the most shocking thing is that his teammates--who, before this season, felt disconnected from Bryant, and often were angered by what they considered self-centered play--encouraged him to take over, and felt confident that, once he lifted himself up, he would not leave the rest of them behind.

Bryant, they say, figured out some time during this, his fourth NBA season, that the more he reached out to his teammates, the better they would all perform in the times of greatest peril.

"He's grown into being Kobe," forward Rick Fox said. "I think he was still working on Kobe in a lot of ways . . .

"As a young man, he's had little time to mature outside of the game. Because the game has surrounded him in so many facets, on the court, off the court, all the attention that's been focused on him is all about basketball.

"For him, finding out what it's like to be a young man and have a life outside of the game, with his teammates, with his family, now with his fiancee . . . it's a lot to swallow.

"And he's finally chewed it up a little bit and relaxed a lot more and he's made himself a lot better person and player."

Though Bryant still does not socialize often with his teammates, he made an effort to include them in some of his activities, including inviting O'Neal and several others to his 21st birthday party last August, and surprisingly showing up--with his future fiancee--at O'Neal's 28th birthday part in March.

This wasn't the quiet teenage phenom who stayed away from any friendships. This was a maturing NBA star, still a little sheltered, but happily branching out.

"I think he realized how much his teammates cared about him and realized how much of his life outside of basketball we knew nothing about and weren't able to really help him in the pressure situations," Fox said.

"It took some time for him to come out of that shell. And when he started coming out of that shell, it was so much easier to be a support group for him and to be a friend to him.

"We saw a little more of Kobe Bryant and who he was about. He opened up and he started to get into his teammates' lives also. He's made himself more accessible and enjoyed being more of a teammate."

O'Neal, who at times rolled his eyes at Bryant's routine of staying in his hotel room every night on the road and fumed when Bryant over-dribbled and tossed up wild shots, says he has always respected Bryant's way of approaching life.

"It's not like he wasn't our friend," O'Neal said. "He's just a sophisticated guy. He doesn't do, well, I wouldn't call them juvenile things, but young-man things.

"He's more like an old sophisticated guy in a young man's body."

But when Bryant showed up at O'Neal's party?

"I was glad to see him," O'Neal said. "I went to his . . .

"When he's out, he's very quiet, sits and chills. He's a gentleman to the ladies. His parents did an excellent job raising him. He's a very sophisticated young man.

"I was telling him [that] when I was his age, I was only so . . . he's all the way to SO-phisticated."

Bryant, for his part, said Thursday that he doesn't think he has changed his lifestyle--other than his recent engagement--as much as he has simply felt more comfortable with the current Laker assemblage.

"I think it's good for them [when his teammates] feel like they're more attached to me," Bryant said. "Personally, I've just been doing the same things that I've always done.

"I will say I feel more comfortable now. The guys that Mr. [Executive Vice President Jerry] West has brought to the ballclub, I feel more comfortable with--we have [Ron] Harper here, we have Salley here, Shaquille and Brian Shaw, who I've known since I was, you know, 11, 12 years old [when Shaw played in Italy at the same time as Bryant's father, Joe].

"I feel more comfortable around them, maybe to be myself. But other than that, I'm still staying in a hotel room every single day, I don't go out to clubs or anything like that."

Since his arrival out of high school, Bryant did not seek to be an NBA peer; he sought to be the greatest player in the history of the game, which was not the easiest way to be accepted into the brotherhood.

But, in the middle of his fourth season, Bryant's work ethic and boundless talent finally won him a place among the elite, and at February's All-Star festivities, Seattle guard Gary Payton went out of his way to praise Bryant, and counsel him on becoming a more dominant defender.

"It meant a lot because he was willing to help me out," Bryant said. "You guys see Payton on the court being real nasty and, you know, real competitive.

"But he's a great guy and talking during the All-Star break really helped me out. After the All-Star break, you saw my defensive game just changed because of what we talked about."

'They might've looked upon him as the devil."

Last season, the Lakers held several players-only meetings, team sources say, almost entirely to try to get through to Bryant, and eventually, to berate him for his stubbornness and erratic play.

Bryant accepted the meetings with his usual calm and continued to go out each night trying to be the best player who ever touched a basketball.

This season, with Phil Jackson brought in to ease the strain, especially between Bryant and O'Neal, there were several meetings, with far greater results.

"It wasn't a question of just Kobe making adjustments to them; the team had to make adjustments and understand Kobe too," assistant coach Tex Winter said.

"I think they recognized that, 'Well, we've got to quit talking about the fact that he's just 21 years old. After all, he's a four-year veteran. And has had a lot of experience in this league and has had a lot of success. . . .

"'Let's give him credit--give the devil his just due.' And I think they might've looked upon him as the devil.

"Here's a young kid, coming in, confident. I don't like to say conceited or cocky, but there was a little cockiness there, which was necessary . . . A young kid like that just out of high school, there's going to be a lot of resentment from older players initially.

"They want him to prove himself. That's the big thing. They wanted him to understand that the team came first, and that he had to prove himself, and I think he's done that."

For Bryant, that meant becoming a feared defender (he made the all-defense first team this season), being more thoughtful about his offensive attack by looking for his teammates more often, especially O'Neal, with whom he has fashioned a deadly effective drive-and-dish duo.

In Jackson and Winter's triangle offense, Bryant doesn't have the freedom that Jordan enjoyed. But that has, many believe, helped him think more as a playmaker and less as the shot-a-minute machine.

Jackson, with scolds and praise, has nudged Bryant to take a bigger-picture view of the game and his career, to watch it unfold, then go for the kill when the opening is there.

As it was in overtime, for four fateful baskets, in Game 4.

"It was just realizing the time to attack," Bryant said of Jackson. "He brought it to me in a different light. It was more kind of relaxing, going with the flow of the game, you know, just investigating the floor, really.

"You penetrate. You know that you can get to that spot, so you say, 'OK, I know I can get there. I'll come back there later. I might come back there in the fourth quarter.'

"He taught me very, very well. That's all I'm doing, just attacking at the right time."

The essence of Bryant's fierce competitiveness, not always visible in public, might have come out when he was punched by New York Knick guard Chris Childs in an April 2 game.

Bryant had to be restrained by four or five players and security men, for many minutes, and raged in the locker room for the rest of the game.

"People were shocked at his bravado during that fight," said Downer, the Lower Merion High coach. "They'd never seen that side of him. But I've seen him chase kids 5-10 around the gym after making a costly turnover that cost him a drill.

"I think Kobe's who he is. I think he's stubborn and not likely to make a lot of changes in the way he approaches things. But I've never met a person who hated to lose as much as he does."

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