Lakers finally get taste of redemption
Kobe Bryant scratched at it until it bled. Derek Fisher clawed at it until it hurt. The rest of them dug and dug until it finally, willfully, wonderfully disappeared.
The Lakers’ seven-year itch is gone.
Awash in relief and redemption, Los Angeles’ cornerstone sports franchise is once again champion of the NBA.
For the 15th time in franchise history, the fourth time this decade and the first time since 2002, the Lakers celebrated Sunday night with a title that was a tribute to reinvention and resilience.
Not to mention calisthenics, with Kobe Bryant leaping and pumping his right arm four times -- one for each ring -- before being mobbed by teammates after his team’s clinching 99-86 victory over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
“This feels like a dream,” said Bryant, his eyes wide with wonder, smiling for the first time in a week. “This doesn’t feel real.”
The four-games-to-one victory dripped not only of champagne, but history.
Phil Jackson becomes the greatest championship coach in NBA history, his 10th title surpassing the nine titles won by the Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach.
“It’s surreal,” said Jackson, wearing a gold cap adorned with X, the Roman numeral for 10.
Bryant, the Finals MVP, becomes possibly the most unburdened player in NBA history as he finally wins a title without former teammate and nemesis Shaquille O’Neal, who had earlier won one without Bryant.
“I just don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism, anymore,” said Bryant, who ended a week of growling intensity by literally gnawing at his fingernails in anticipation of Sunday’s final horn.
Sitting with a Moet-soaked T-shirt in the interview room underneath Amway Arena, Bryant shook his head, grinning and chuckling, the taut and tough leader finally admitting that the Shaq rap ripped him.
“It was like Chinese water torture . . . it was just annoying . . . I would cringe every time,” he said. “I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it.”
There was also a milestone of sorts reached by owner Jerry Buss, who becomes the best sports owner of the 21st century.
The Lakers’ fourth title since 2000 is more during that span than any other franchise in any other major sport, with this latest occurring after a reinvention that only Hollywood could love.
Since their last title in 2002, the Lakers have lived through the trading of one superstar, the trial of another superstar, three coaching changes, a historically blown first-round playoff series against Phoenix, a completely choked Finals against Boston and general daily turmoil.
Even in Sunday’s triumph there was weirdness, as Joey Buss, a front-office worker and one of Jerry’s younger sons, accepted the Larry O’Brien trophy with a nod to . . . the Lakers’ most hated rival?
“We have two more to go to meet the Boston Celtics,” he said of the Celtics’ record 17 titles.
It was last year’s flop in the Finals against Boston that provided the impetus for the Lakers to find the strength to win this season. The difference in the clinching games was proud and pointed.
Last year, the Lakers were outscored 34-15 in the second quarter before being run out of the Finals in a 39-point loss.
This year, the Lakers outscored the Magic 30-18 in the second quarter before cruising to the crown.
“We were put in a position where we had to dig deep, find out who you are,” Fisher said.
In that second quarter, we learned exactly who the Lakers were, as at one point they outscored the Magic 16-0 in a flurry of that scratching and clawing.
It can be recounted here in four paragraphs. The Magic will be thinking about it for the next four months.
Fisher hit a three-pointer. Bryant stole the ball and found Trevor Ariza for another three-pointer.
The Magic were harassed into another miss, Bryant scored on a running jump shot, grabbed another defensive rebound, found Ariza for another three-pointer.
A twisting steal by Lamar Odom led to a Fisher layup. A diving steal by Ariza led to an Ariza free throw.
Yet another steal by Ariza led to a fast break in which the ball pinged from Laker to Laker to Laker until Odom scored on a scooping layup.
Read enough? The Magic had enough.
Of the Lakers, Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy grunted, “They’re the best team in the league, and pretty damn good.”
Though the Finals required only five games, it wasn’t that easy, with two of them going into overtime and one of them requiring jaw-dropping shots from Fisher for a tie and the victory.
All of which was typical of the last seven years, when the Lakers tore themselves apart, only to slowly put themselves back together.
“This wasn’t just about one year,” said Luke Walton, standing in a crowded, cluttered locker room that reeked of champagne and sighs. “This was about a lot of years, a long road, a long time coming.”
The road began in the summer of 2004 when Buss, angry at O’Neal’s contract demands, traded the legendary center and ended the Lakers’ chance at building on a stretch of three consecutive titles that began in 2000.
At the same time, weary of the hassles and feeling unloved by ownership, Phil Jackson also left the team, leaving it in the hands of Bryant, a churlish leader with no followers.
The results were madness, and in 2004-05 the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs.
“The fans of Los Angeles have always had great confidence in us, but I felt for a couple of years there, they questioned that,” said General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
Yet Kupchak remained steady in his vision and Bryant slowly grew up.
The first piece arrived from Miami in the deal for Shaquille O’Neal: career underachiever Odom. Then, after the failed season of Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen, Buss admitted his mistake and paid Jackson $10 million a season to return.
Then, after they lost consecutive first-round playoff series to Phoenix -- including becoming just the eighth team in history to blow a three-games-to-one lead -- Bryant blasted the organization and said if the team wasn’t improved, he wanted to be traded.
“We’ve been way up, then way down,” said Kupchak.
But again the general manager remained steady, answering Bryant’s pleas by reacquiring Fisher while trading for Ariza and Gasol.
“Got a new point guard, got a new wing, got a Spaniard, and then it was all good,” Bryant said. “I had a bunch of Christmas presents that came early.”
All those presents were finally opened Sunday night, Odom screaming, Gasol waving, wonder everywhere, the itch scratched, the parade through downtown Los Angeles scheduled for Wednesday, the journey complete.
Or has it just started?
Bryant can opt out of his contract this summer, but he says he can’t imagine playing anywhere else. Jackson has one more year on his contract, and it appears he will honor it. The Lakers should be able to find the money to re-sign potential free agents Odom and Ariza, and surely Andrew Bynum will be older and better, right?
“When next season comes around, we’ll go from there,” said Bryant. “We’ll be ready to work again, that’s for sure.”
Los Angeles will be ready to watch, this breathless ending somehow feeling like another beginning.