Kobe arrives, but he’s always been here


Remember Shaq and Kobe?

Now it’s Kobe and Shaq.

Actually, they’re tied with four NBA titles apiece, but there’s no doubt whose time this is . . . finally . . . with Kobe Bryant, who’s 30 to Shaquille O’Neal’s 37, on a young powerhouse, as opposed to being shopped around the league.

The Lakers won more than a title Sunday, which ranked with such watershed moments as the first one they won in Los Angeles in 1972; their first with Magic Johnson in 1980; and their first over the Boston Celtics in 1985.

This marks their return from a post-Shaq fall, and raises Phil Jackson above all coaches. Of course, it was only seven seasons between titles, however agonizing, and Jackson wasn’t worried abut his standing among coaches.


Above all, it marks the arrival of Bryant as a universally acknowledged all-time great, conferring a legitimacy that was withheld all his career.

Nakedly ambitious, oblivious to others’ sensibilities, learning every lesson the hardest possible way, Bryant was, until recently, the most scorned NBA superstar since Wilt Chamberlain -- in a much harder era to be scorned.

Now it’s as if Kobe just went from zero titles to four -- this one and the three he got with Shaq, which nobody mentioned before.

Making it as official as it gets, Hannah Storm of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” announced Monday: “Kobe Bryant can now be placed on the list of the greatest players of all time.”

So, exactly where was he before Sunday?

Here’s a news flash: Bryant has been this good for a long time.

He had this determination everyone is oohing and ahhing about as a rookie.

As far as making teammates better, he got over that hump while Shaq was still here, averaging a then-career-high 5.9 assists in 2002-03.

Winning was always everything and second place the same as last, but it’s especially true on the level Bryant functions on, the quest to be the best ever.


Now, incredibly, after all he has been through, someone just lowered a stairway from heaven.

The Lakers won this title with little from Andrew Bynum. If he goes back to being a force, they move up another level, where there are no other teams.

Kobe and Shaq -- then Shaq and Kobe -- had a budding dynasty, but the operative word turned out to be budding, not dynasty.

In eight seasons, with what Boston General Manager Danny Ainge called the modern Wilt Chamberlain playing with the modern Michael Jordan, they won three titles.

Actually, by the time it was over, it seemed remarkable that they stayed together long enough to win any.

A Lakers official recently mused about their heyday, when teams had to double Shaq fast or he’d put both defenders in the cheap seats, leaving three guys on four Lakers, one of whom was Kobe.


“Boy,” said the official, in an organizational mantra, “we sure left a lot on the table, didn’t we?”

Of course, some teams learn lessons faster than others.

With the Lakers supposedly on a mission after last spring’s loss to the Celtics, this postseason started off as an awfully casual mission.

Lakers co-owner Magic Johnson watched their Game 4 humiliation by the Houston Rockets with the ABC studio crew in Bristol, Conn., smoke coming out of his ears.

“It’s a new era,” Johnson said last week, laughing. “This is their time. For me, I was embarrassed for them, to get blown out without Tracy McGrady, without Yao Ming. I would have gone into my room and not come out for two or three days.”

These Lakers bristled at any suggestion they were embarrassed, with the blithe self-assurance they had shown all season.

Everywhere else, a sense of urgency was assumed, but there they were, still learning lessons and getting wake-up calls, until they finally felt what everyone else had all along: fear.


At that point Bryant, who had been oddly tranquil as counseled by Jackson, began baring his teeth -- or, in other words, turned back into Kobe Bryant.

The Houston debacle turned out to be their version of the 1985 Memorial Day Massacre in Boston, when the Lakers were embarrassed -- er, taught a lesson they never forgot -- and turned their entire history around.

As Derek Fisher noted, there was no missing how much this title meant to this team in its emotional outpouring of a celebration.

“It’s just a special group,” Fisher said. “I think that’s why you saw the emotion that you saw tonight. We didn’t act like we expected this to happen. I mean, we really celebrated like we didn’t know this was coming.”

The Lakers are a reflection of Jackson, but even more, Bryant. If they all had their own reasons for joy, Kobe’s liberation was up there for everyone.

No one ever lived a life like Bryant’s -- investing himself so completely, aiming for such heights, taking such falls, fighting back from such ignominy.


He’s 30, and his career is finally what he thought it would be, at a time he can finally appreciate it -- as opposed to the three titles he won by the time he was 23, when he couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

This looks as if it is only starting, assuming they don’t do anything dumb, like letting Lamar Odom go so they can net $60 million instead of $50 million.

Jerry Buss has always been good about spending what it takes, as long as the championships were actually forthcoming.

Of course, you never know what’s up with them. One of Buss’ younger sons, Joey, who runs the D-Fenders but had never represented the Lakers in any capacity, wound up picking up the trophy and, with Bill Russell standing a few feet away, warned the Celtics, who lead them by two titles, to watch their back.

Of course, a year ago Wycliffe Grousbeck, who had missed the playoffs twice and never gotten past the second round in five seasons as the Celtics’ owner, assumed the mantle of Red Auerbach after making the Finals against the Lakers, announcing:

“And we’re 8-2!”

So maybe this was just payback. In any case, it was a historic season for the Lakers, who needed one.