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No Fear Oblivious to the pressure, Kobe Bryant drove the Lakers past the Trail Blazers

Kobe Bryant begins the most important game of his young life
with a couple of air balls and then dribbles off his foot,
out-of-bounds. He misses a free throw. The Los Angeles Lakers,
best team in the NBA, are down by seven after the first quarter,
and it's about to get worse. Forced into a Game 7 by the
Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers are soon down by 16 points
toward the end of the third quarter on Sunday, about to be
eliminated in their own house.

But Bryant cannot be discouraged, embarrassed or offended. He
suffers no loss of self-esteem, no self-doubt. He is young. He
doesn't know any better.

In the fourth quarter, L.A. down by 13, Bryant blocks a Bonzi
Wells shot with just enough theatrical gusto to start his team
on an improbable comeback, during which he scores nine points
and feeds Shaquille O'Neal an alley-oop pass for a rim-rattling
dunk that more or less ices the game. The Lakers, in as fitful a
conference final as has ever been played, pass on to the NBA
Finals with an 89-84 victory.

Bryant puts it all in historical perspective: "This is something
I've been dreaming about all of my 21 years."

So now you understand how this team, with so much talent, is so
frustrating to watch, even as it wins. With the best record
during the regular season, with the league's best player in
Shaq, the Lakers struggle through the playoffs--entering the
Finals, they are 8-1 until they get to games that could clinch a
series, 3-5 in those potential closeouts. No wonder coach Phil
Jackson allows his team to play uninterrupted through Portland's
20-0 run in Game 2, his eyes fixed at some point just above his
long, folded legs. It's not as if he's trying to embarrass them
into performance. He simply doesn't know what to do with them.

But he has this kid Bryant out there, not so much unacquainted
with defeat as he is unable to recognize it. On the other side
is Scottie Pippen, a guy with six championship rings.
Experience, however, is as devastating as it is reassuring, and
Pippen cannot help but understand a shift in momentum late in
Game 7, when his Blazers miss 13 straight shots and let Los
Angeles back into the game. ("We wanted to be aggressive, but
the momentum shifts," he would say.) Pippen, mindful of the
circumstances--he can recognize defeat when it shows
up--abruptly disappears, scoring zero points in the telltale
quarter, and doesn't even attempt a shot during his team's 0-13
cold spell.

Maybe Bryant will never be so educated in the downside of life
that he'll play fearfully or even sensibly, or ever recognize
shifts in momentum. It might be that he's permanently
constituted like a guy selling personal care products
door-to-door, so infatuated with his own possibilities that
he'll never suffer a moment of self-doubt. Last Friday night,
when the Lakers lost another of those potential closeout games
to Portland, Bryant keyed a fast break by bounce-passing the
ball between a defender's legs. It was, essentially, an insult,
saying the opponent was 90% air, completely permeable. Yet don't
read arrogance into the pass, only a playful willingness by
Bryant to explore his own talents, to embrace the possibilities.

This kind of personality, never mind how brilliant, is going to
torture you a little, too, which is why the Lakers haven't swept
anybody. Sometimes the ball goes through the defender's legs
(how the hell...?), and sometimes it goes off Bryant's foot (the
idiot!). The nonchalance of youth, as when Bryant shrugs off a
playoff loss with his catchphrase, "No biggie," can be doubly
maddening. The kid just doesn't understand that with the
conference finals tied 3-3 and his team down by 16, it is very
much a biggie. No wonder Jackson spends so much time on the
bench staring at his shoes.

Then this same kid sees Shaq angling toward the basket and,
unmindful of either gaffes or glory, pitches the perfect lob,
ensuring that his team avoids a wipeout. It's quite a sight to
see somebody so unshadowed by failure, so oblivious to
circumstance (with its debilitating shifts in momentum), so
unencumbered by defeat. So damn young.

--Richard Hoffer

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HELPING HAND Bryant was up for the challenge of Game 7, whether scoring, rebounding or trying to thwart Wallace.