They finally figured it out. It was there on both their faces,
the jubilation and relief that came with knowing that they had
cracked the safe and learned how championships are won. There
were times in their careers when it must have seemed to
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant that the trophy that they
wanted so badly was locked in a vault, and that no one would
tell them the combination. But they persevered, and on Monday
night, they received their reward. It took all of the Los
Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title with a 116-111 victory over
the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Finals at the Staples
Center, but they would still be stumbling about as talented
underachievers if O'Neal and Bryant had not grasped what they
needed to know at last.
When the final buzzer sounded and made them NBA champions for the
first time, the two players immediately sought each other for an
embrace, and the bitter endings of previous years melted away.
There was 1995, when O'Neal's Orlando Magic team was swept in the
Finals by the Houston Rockets, as well as his two other
postseasons as a Laker that concluded on the short end of a
sweep. For Bryant, 21, there was 1997, when he shot wildly down
the stretch as L.A. was bounced out of the playoffs by the Utah
Jazz. They have endured a great deal of disappointment for
players so young, but Monday night was the ending they had been
searching for. When they found it, O'Neal, 28, broke down in
tears. "I've held the emotion for about 11 years--three years in
college and eight years in the league," O'Neal said. "It just
came out. It just came out."
Bryant expressed his joy with humor. He was asked what he had
learned about being a champion. "I didn't know champagne burned
your eyes like that," he said, smiling broadly. "It's brutal."
But he has discerned much more than that in his four pro seasons,
especially this one. In their first year under the tutelage of
coach Phil Jackson, O'Neal and Bryant learned how to put a leash
on their egos, how to replace panic with patience, how to let
themselves be coached, and the rest of the team followed their
lead. They developed, in short, the qualities of a champion,
qualities that were never more apparent than in Game 6, when a
noble effort by Indiana nearly pushed them to a seventh game. The
Lakers of the past few years, just as talented as this team,
would have crumbled under the pressure applied by star guard
Reggie Miller and the Pacers, who led for most of the game until
L.A. asserted its superiority at the end.
That superiority, as usual, was embodied by the Lakers' two
superstars. O'Neal scored 41 points in Game 6, and his series
averages of 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds earned him the Finals
MVP trophy by unanimous vote. Bryant was relentless down the
stretch, repeatedly breaking down the Pacers' defense in the
fourth quarter and hitting the free throws that clinched the
title with 2.5 seconds left. O'Neal and Bryant didn't do it alone
by any means. Embattled forward Glen Rice (16 points) had his
best all-around performance in the series, and forwards Rick Fox
and Robert Horry drained crucial fourth-quarter threes. "We
played our hearts out tonight," Fox said. "Going through the
Pacers and the Blazers, no one can say we took an easy route to
One of the things these Lakers will learn--and let's be clear, a
solitary title doesn't mean class is dismissed--is that winning a
championship brings with it a new set of opponents, historical
adversaries who exist only in memory and who can't be defeated on
the court. All the champions of the past become the standard
against which the new one is measured, and in that imposing
context no flaw is too minor to escape notice. For these Lakers,
the inability to deal wounded opponents a swift and fatal blow
will be used by their detractors to cast them as some sort of
Los Angeles was on the verge of a three-game sweep in the first
round before letting the Sacramento Kings drag the series out to
five. After taking a 3-0 lead in the next round against the
Phoenix Suns, L.A. was run off the court in Game 4, 117-98,
before clinching one game later. The Portland Trail Blazers came
back from a 3-1 deficit to force a seventh game in which only a
miracle finish allowed the Lakers to survive. Finally, the Pacers
delayed a possible coronation in Game 5 with a 120-87 demolition
that sent the series back to the Staples Center. "I don't like to
think of a team that has championship quality in it losing by 33
points," Jackson said after Indiana's rout.
The margin of victory may have been humbling, but the suggestion
that the Lakers cannot be considered elite champs because of
their failure to put the hammer down doesn't take into account
the stumbles of past titlists. Jackson in particular is well
aware that several of his Chicago Bulls championship teams had a
similar habit of letting opponents temporarily dodge the last
bullet, at least in the Finals. In 1993 the Bulls missed a chance
to win the title at home by losing Game 5 to the Suns. Three
years later they had a 3-0 lead over the Seattle SuperSonics
before dropping Games 4 and 5. In 1998, Michael Jordan's final
year, they were ahead 3-1 and lost Game 5 at home to the Jazz.
Chicago won all three series because it was the best team in the
big moments. The same can now be said of L.A.
But with a 2-1 lead heading into Game 4 on June 14, the Lakers
weren't worried about their killer instinct as much as their own
survival. Bryant's left ankle, which he sprained early in Game 2
when he landed on the foot of Pacers forward Jalen Rose, had kept
him out of Game 3, and how effective he would be for the rest of
the series was anyone's guess. What few observers expected was
that Bryant would not only play in what turned out to be the
pivotal game of the series, but he would also decide it.
Los Angeles dealt Indiana a knee-buckling emotional blow with a
120-118 overtime win to take a 3-1 lead. The Pacers played an
inspired game, shooting 50.0% from the field, including 52.6% (10
of 19) from the three-point line while holding their own against
O'Neal and Co. on the boards. Still, the Lakers hung in, thanks
largely to the brilliance of Bryant, who scored eight points in
the extra period, including two on a balletic reverse tip-in, to
rescue L.A. after Shaq had fouled out with 2:33 left in OT.
Though he scored 36 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, O'Neal had no
trouble admitting, "Kobe was the hero tonight."
Bryant's 28-point performance was a tribute not just to his
talent and ability to excel under pressure but to his powers of
recuperation as well. By the estimate of Lakers trainer Gary
Vitti, if the average weekend warrior suffered the same
second-degree sprain (third degree is the most severe) he would
need several weeks before he would be healthy enough to return to
his pickup games. Bryant needed only five days to recover enough
to put on the kind of show that Jordan used to deliver on a
regular basis at this time of year. "Somebody must have waved a
wand over that boy's leg," said L.A. backup center John Salley
after Game 4. Bryant's resilience might have seemed magical, but
it was actually the result of around-the-clock treatment that was
both high-tech and hands-on.
Vitti ministered to Bryant's ankle, in two and sometimes three
sessions per day, with a combination of ice, compression, massage
and electrical stimulation. Bryant was also more than willing to
work on his own, waking up through the night to do
range-of-motion exercises and to ice the ankle. He even seemed to
grow more limber as Game 4 went on. "Kobe's still got an injury
that some guys wouldn't be able to play with, despite all the
same treatment," Vitti said before Game 5. "It might not look
like it, but he's hurt. People have been slapping me on the back,
but all the credit for his coming back should go to Kobe."
After that thrilling overtime win, it wasn't surprising that the
Lakers seemed loose and confident two nights later for Game 5,
the potential clincher, with dreams of champagne showers dancing
in their heads. Rice noticed the plastic wrapped around one of
the television cameras in the locker room before the game. "You
don't need to cover that thing," he told the cameraman. "It's not
raining in here...yet."
But after the game L.A.'s locker room was drier than a nightclub
during Prohibition, thanks to a nearly letter-perfect performance
by the Pacers, particularly Rose, who rebounded from a 5-of-16
shooting night in Game 4 to score 32 points. Although the Pacers
played crisply, the Lakers gave them plenty of help, especially
with a halfhearted defense that allowed Indiana a steady diet of
open jump shots. The Pacers shot a sizzling 57.4% from the field
and made 10 of 20 three-point attempts.
The victory allowed Larry Bird to walk away victorious in his
last game as coach on Indiana's home floor. He left, however,
with far more debate over the quality of his coaching than there
ever was over the quality of his play. The prevailing opinion of
Bird the coach seemed to fluctuate with each game. When the
Pacers won he was the master delegator, the calming influence who
didn't need to feed his ego by overstrategizing. When they lost
he was a figurehead who couldn't or wouldn't make necessary
After O'Neal fouled out of Game 4, leaving Bryant as Los
Angeles's main weapon, Bird chose not to double-team him, which
might have forced the Lakers to find a supporting player capable
of making clutch shots. In Indiana's Game 1 loss, Bird stuck to
his routine of letting backup point guard Travis Best play the
bulk of the fourth quarter even though Mark Jackson (18 points)
was having an exceptional game. While Jackson professed to have
no problem with that decision, it's clear that at least some of
Bird's players never figured him out. "He's definitely got his
own style," says center Rik Smits, "and it doesn't include a lot
of conversation. Since the All-Star break, I'd say I've only had
one or two real talks with him."
One way in which Bird hasn't changed from his playing days is
that he remains unafraid to say exactly what he thinks, even when
it means criticizing his own players. Upset with Jackson for
having earned a technical foul late in Game 5 with the Pacers
cruising, he called his point guard's behavior "nonsense," even
though Jackson had said he was just trying to calm down some
belligerent teammates. "I don't care if he was going to give
somebody a kiss," Bird said. "Just play the game."
It won't be surprising if the Indiana players are as critical of
Bird after his departure as they were of the coach he replaced
three seasons ago, Larry Brown. But Bird will have a compelling
defense: He led the Pacers to the Finals, further than they had
ever gone in their 24-year NBA history.
Bird was disappointed but not distraught that his coaching career
ended without a title. "I feel bad for our guys but happy for the
Lakers," he said. In a way, there may have been no one who was
happier for O'Neal and Bryant than Bird was. Only someone who has
been a champion can truly understand how good it feels to become
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, DAVID E. KLUTHO, MANNY MILLAN, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND BOB ROSATO Power grab O'Neal snatched 16.7 rebounds a game to go with his 38.0 points, all of which added up to the series MVP award.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, DAVID E. KLUTHO, MANNY MILLAN, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND BOB ROSATO HIGH TIMES Despite a bum ankle, Bryant put a Jordanesque stamp on the Finals with acrobatic baskets--like this one over Austin Croshere--at opportune moments.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, DAVID E. KLUTHO, MANNY MILLAN, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND BOB ROSATO ROSE TO THE OCCASION Though Rose was at times a brilliant complement to Miller in Indianapolis, he was unable to lead the Pacers to a road victory. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, DAVID E. KLUTHO, MANNY MILLAN, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND BOB ROSATO OVER AND OUT With his forays to the hoop, Miller nearly kept pace with O'Neal but couldn't wipe out Indiana's 3-1 deficit.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, DAVID E. KLUTHO, MANNY MILLAN, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND BOB ROSATO HUG-A-SHAQ Bryant sought out O'Neal when Game 6 ended, for an embrace that helped purge memories of playoffs past.
BRYANT'S PERFORMANCE WAS A TRIBUTE NOT JUST TO HIS TALENT BUT
ALSO TO HIS POWERS OF RECUPERATION.