Kobe in the Promised Land, Act II.
Remember when the first round of the playoffs blocked the Lakers’ way, as impenetrable as a mountain range?
You should. It wasn’t that long ago.
For all those years it fell to Kobe Bryant to pull their little covered wagon through those mountains, even if it kept rolling back down and taking him with it.
Not that he’s inclined to reminisce now. Asked about his first victory in a playoff series since 2004, he gave one of his studious answers about “execution.”
Pressed, he acknowledged it was a landmark (“It kind of feels like I’m back home. This is where we belong,”) just not the one that counts.
If the journey was relatively brief (it took the post-Larry Bird Celtics 10 years to win a playoff series) the Lakers made up for it in weirdness:
From Rudy Tomjanovich fleeing in 2005, to blowing a 3-1 lead over Phoenix in 2006 when Bryant was pilloried nationwide for not shooting in Game 7, to last spring’s lifeless 4-1 loss to the Suns that prompted Kobe’s days of rage.
Happily for the Lakers, they made it through those times together.
Of course, it was really close.
Before assistant coach Brian Shaw won three titles alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, he and O’Neal were in Orlando running their “Shaw-Shaq Redemption” lob play.
Unfortunately, one day half the act left and Shaw had no one to lob the ball to.
Years later, when Lakers ownership was optimistic about what was possible without O’Neal and traded him, Shaw knew better.
“I thought it would be the exact same experience,” Shaw says. “In Orlando’s situation, you had Shaq, Penny Hardaway and the rest of the guys that were on the team weren’t guys that could go get their own shots.
“It was basically the same kind of setup in L.A. You had Shaq. You had Kobe, who was an attack player. But then you had role players around them,” such as Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox, “that basically did the same thing.”
Of the trade, he says, “I, for one, when that happened, I wasn’t a proponent of it, after having been through wars with Shaq in Orlando and here again in L.A.”
Knowing what he knew, where did Shaw see their happy ending coming from?
“I’ll say this,” he says, laughing, “the year that Rudy T. came aboard, I was scouting so I was out of the everyday basketball operation because, just personally, I knew it wasn’t going to be any fun . . .
“I don’t care what other pieces you got -- Caron [Butler], Lamar [Odom]-- in that trade, it still doesn’t measure up to a guy you have to pay attention to down on the low post.
“I’m just glad it got to the point where it’s at now.”
Luke Walton was a rookie in the tumultuous 2003-04 season when the Lakers reached the Finals with Bryant facing charges in Colorado before the Pistons upset them.
Little did Walton know, that would soon look like the good old days. For three years, the Lakers told themselves the usual things: They had a lot of talent, they just had to put it together, etc.
Now that they really do have a lot of talent and have put it together, they wonder how they overcame so much.
“Every day it’s happening, you don’t really realize it,” Walton says of the down times.
“But now that we’re back trying to win championships, looking back on it, it’s night and day how different it is as far as the everyday things, expecting to win, just the quality of life you have every day.”
For three stoic seasons while being blamed for everything, Bryant never gave voice to a single moment of doubt.
Anger was something else. A new, darker Bryant emerged, embracing a new nickname -- “Mamba” -- all but caressing an ominous-looking black snake on the cover of Slam magazine, glaring so hard at referees, it seemed a matter of time before he melted one into a puddle.
Kobe being Kobe, after he finally went off on everyone from owner Jerry Buss on down, it wasn’t going to be easy to turn him around, a point Buss seemed to concede when he announcing he would “certainly” entertain trade offers.
Bryant finally resigned himself to starting the season here, but this wasn’t the Bryant who was never more brilliant than he was in mid-crisis.
This Bryant played within himself (not that the coaches minded because it helped Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic emerge) and held himself apart from their delight at the surprising start.
It wasn’t until mid-January when Bynum was hurt and Bryant said that with him they were a “championship-caliber team” that Kobe Bryant began to share in the joy that multiplied when they got Pau Gasol.
“I think it’s kind of been like we’ve talked about since the whole thing came crumbling down,” Walton says. “It’s been a process for him.
“He’s had all the pressure thrown on him. He’s had the press saying he was the reason Shaq and everyone left.
“That’s a lot for a young player to handle and it’s been a four-year process for him to get to the leadership role he has. But this year, he’s hands down the best I’ve seen him as far as being the leader on and off the court, getting everybody to play hard and to play for each other.”
Of course, there are a lot of other things they haven’t done for years that lie beyond the first round.
Happily for all concerned, this isn’t the Lakers or the Bryant of the last three seasons.
“I know for him, just the way he’s played this year, you see that smile, that joy and that sparkle in his eye again that’s been missing over the last couple of seasons,” Shaw says.
“I think he feels he has support around him that when he’s going into battle now, he actually has a chance to win and do something. And I don’t think he felt like that before. I think he felt already defeated before the past few years.”
That’s history. There are times you miss and times you’re just glad are history.