All they had to do was follow the stars, who burned bright, burned long, and burned to be champions.
Two blazing stars, who guided the way, through darkness and desperation, failed hopes and renewed dreams.
It was not easy. It was not inevitable.
It was a stampede, then a struggle, and then a stampede again.
At times, it verged so close to heartbreak that it was difficult to separate the tears of joy from those of exhaustion, and collapse.
But, at the last moment, in the midst of the last battle, the last comeback, the last attack and the last summoning of collective will and breath, the Lakers turned to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who did not fail them.
O'Neal, the biggest star, and Bryant, the shiniest, carried them to a 116-111 Game 6 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday before 18,997 at Staples Center, delivering an NBA championship to a franchise that had waited 12 years for this.
For the stars to lead them back.
"We rode Shaq's back," guard Ron Harper said of O'Neal, who scored 41 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked four shots and was the unanimous winner of the finals most-valuable-player award, following his MVP for the regular season.
"Whatever he wants to call himself, we rode him to a championship."
Said Glen Rice of O'Neal and Bryant: "I'll tell you, that's the best duo that I've seen in a long time. And they are going to be together, forever."
Said Buss: "They're the best two players in basketball.'
Finally, inside a Laker locker room drenched with champagne and overflowing emotion, O'Neal grabbed several of his teammates, and just started jumping, jumping, jumping . . . crashing against cameramen, bumping against walls, as if there was too much energy and happiness to contain any of it.
And as if the Lakers, as a team, had melded together into one, wet, loud ball of humanity, in celebration and relief.
Earlier, O'Neal grabbed the title trophy with one giant hand, lifted the MVP trophy with the other, and there they were, two glistening points of light, poking through the haze.
"We're going to win one next year too," O'Neal told the crowd during the presentation ceremony.
Said guard Derek Fisher: "For this basketball team, the ups and downs we've been through the last four years, to be here now . . .
"As one of the guys who have been here through the entire four years, it's been great."
It was O'Neal who was the man the Lakers turned to all season, and it was, of course, O'Neal again who led the charges against the Pacers, who shot themselves to a lead and did not easily give it up.
"I've never seen anybody dominate like that, ever," Laker owner Jerry Buss said as champagne sprayed all around him. "I mean, obviously, Wilt Chamberlain was something very special, but quite honestly, [O'Neal] played probably the best basketball any player has ever played."
It was not without peril, however--this game, or this season.
O'Neal's last surge put them ahead, 110-103, with 3:02 left, but that was not the end of it.
Reggie Miller, who scored 25 points, made a jumper, Austin Croshere a free throw and Dale Davis two, while O'Neal missed three out of four free throws when he was fouled intentionally.
After Croshere made two more free throws with 1:32 left, it was 110-109, and Staples rumbled with apprehension: Would the Lakers, who already blew a chance to clinch Friday in Indianapolis, blow another one and force a Game 7?
"You've seen this team step up to the challenges," said Rick Fox, who made a crucial three-point basket in the fourth quarter. "You saw it in Portland, you saw it in other playoff games. I think we had no doubts about what we were going to do. . . .
"'This is the M.O. of this team--when people look back on this championship team, they'll say we were able to wow you with exciting basketball and then force you to check your pacemakers."
Glen Rice was fouled and made two free throws, Croshere missed a jumper over Harper, Miller missed a hurried 30-footer to try to tie, and Bryant made two free throws with 13 seconds left to give the Lakers a 114-109 lead, then two more to end the scoring, end the season, and start the party.
After Bryant made two free throws to seal the victory and the championship with 2.5 seconds left, Indiana called timeout, and Bryant walked off the court pointing to his ring finger, and raising a single digit.
"This is the first of many--like it was before," said Buss, who had won five previous championships in the '80s as Laker owner.
Bryant did not have a dominant game, but scored 26 points (on eight-for-27 shooting), grabbed 10 rebounds and had four assists, two of them coming on dump-offs to O'Neal in the crucial fourth-quarter Laker run that put them ahead for the first time since the first quarter.
"We just knew we had to survive some things," said Coach Phil Jackson, who won his seventh championship as a coach in his first season with the Lakers. "The excruciating moments of Shaq at the free throw line . . .
"In the fourth quarter, we found a place where they couldn't stop us."
The Lakers took their first lead of the second half, 91-90, on an O'Neal fastbreak basket with 9:02 to play, but he missed the resulting free throw, his sixth miss in eight attempts--and the Lakers' 10th in the game in 21 tries.
After three-pointers by Rick Fox and Robert Horry, suddenly the Lakers had a 97-92 lead; back-to-back O'Neal dunk put-backs jumped it to 101-94.
But Indiana kept grinding, sending a parade of shooters to the free-throw line (and making them) and it was tied, 103-103, with 5:08 after Rose's three-pointer.
So one last Laker revival was necessary.
Said Harper: "This team was about turning around. We've got a lot of talent on this team, and they've had it for the last four years. . . .
"We brought some of the older guys in here, me, A.C. Green . . . and we did the job we had to do. We had our hard times. But we came out on top, and that's all that counts."
In the celebratory locker room, John Salley splashed anyone in sight, Green sprinted around like a teenager and everyone else stood around, dazed and bleary-eyed.
"The championship celebration is as much fun as the whole season put together," Buss said.
Said Fox: "I've never done this before. I feel like a kid. I feel like a kid, that's for sure. I've got to get in on this thing!"
The first 17 minutes of the game played almost exactly to Indiana's most exact wishes: The Lakers started sluggishly, the Pacers shot the ball well from the outside, and Indiana, by sheer hustle and perseverance, was getting the rolls and the flings.
O'Neal and Bryant misfired early (both missed three of their first four shots), and when the Pacers began revving up their long-distance shooting, the Staples crowd began grumbling and murmuring.
To put a stamp on the first-quarter proceedings, Mark Jackson took a 30-foot inbounds pass with .6 seconds remaining, turned and swished a 40-footer to beat the buzzer and give the Pacers a 26-24 lead heading into the second quarter.
Other than O'Neal, who scored 20 first-half points, the Lakers were a step slow, and played themselves into a 12-point deficit (47-35) midway through the second quarter, after Sam Perkins made his second consecutive three-pointer--and the Pacers' seventh of the half.
But, finally, the Laker defense woke from slumber, started challenging the Pacer jump shots and triggering some transition offense.
"What a way to start the millennium," Jackson said at the trophy presentation.
Said O'Neal: "Phil was able to keep us poised. When you look at a guy like Phil, if you're a leader, he's not worried.
"I think we needed Phil to do it."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
By The Numbers
Years since any L.A. pro team has won a title: 12
Consecutive playoff series won by Phil Jackson-coached teams: 16
Lakers' overall record this season (.781): 82-83
MOST TITLES BY TEAM:
* 7 in L.A.
MOST TITLES BY COACH:
Red Auerbach 9
Phil Jackson 7
John Kundla 5
Pat Riley 4
LAKERS FINALS MVPs
1969 Jerry West*
1972 Wilt Chamberlain
1980 Magic Johnson
1982 Magic Johnson
1985 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1987 Magic Johnson
1988 James Worthy
2000 Shaquille O'Neal
* Lakers lost series
Pts. Reb. FG% Season 29.7 13.6 .574 Finals 38.0 16.7 .611 Game 6 41 12 .594
Complete NBA champions/MVPs list: Page 9
While most fans celebrated peacefully, cars were burned and even police cars were vandalized outside Staples Center after victory. A1
From a kneeling Orel Hershiser in 1988 to a leaping Shaquille O'Neal on Monday, the faintly flickering torch of L.A. championships has been passed. A1
Another title for Buss S3
What next for Lakers? S4
Another title for Jackson S5
Game report S6
Larry Bird's last game S7
Laker report S7
Pacer report S7
Behind the scenes S8
Planning the parade S8