Just one question remains for the Lakers after their second straight title: Can their stars stay aligned long enough to seize a third?
By Phil Taylor
Issue date: June 25, 2001
Shaquille O'Neal strolled down a hallway of the First Union Center in Philadelphia last Friday night carrying his Finals MVP trophy and leaving the scent of Dom Perignon in his wake. "Smell that?" he said. "That's what winning smells like."
He ducked as he entered a makeshift television studio, where his purple-and-gold Los Angeles Lakers jersey hung on a blue curtain next to Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson's. As Shaq deadpanned his way through the interview, Kobe Bryant walked onto the set to await his turn before the camera. With a garish Lakers leather jacket over his uniform and his championship cap askew, Bryant bobbed his head happily as he hummed to himself and cradled the championship trophy, looking like a little boy who had finally gotten the present he'd always wanted.
When O'Neal finished his interview, he saw Bryant standing in the wings, and both men put their hardware down to high-five and embrace. Then, as Shaq exited and Bryant took his place in front of the camera, a member of the TV crew took down the O'Neal jersey from the curtain, revealing Bryant's number 8 uniform hanging behind it. In an instant Shaq's room had turned into Kobe's.
The Lakers wrapped up their second straight NBA title with the closest thing to a perfect postseason the league has ever known, largely because they made a series of similarly deft transitions. They went back and forth during the playoffs, from O'Neal's team to Bryant's and from Bryant's to O'Neal's, without missing a beat -- and nearly without being beaten. The 108-96 victory over the noble but overmatched Sixers in Game 5, which wrapped up the championship, was L.A.'s 23rd in 24 games dating back to the regular season, and only Philadelphia's overtime win in Game 1 at the Staples Center kept the Lakers from becoming the first champion to complete an undefeated postseason. "It's especially satisfying to know that we didn't just win, we dominated," says Los Angeles forward Rick Fox. "We made the regular season harder than it had to be with our internal problems, but once we found ourselves, there was no stopping this team."
Although the Lakers weren't as spectacular in the Finals as they had been in the first three rounds of the playoffs, their dismantling of the Sixers, especially in Philadelphia, was in its own way equally impressive. The three road victories proved that they could grind it out, that in a series billed as Sixers guts against Lakers glitz, L.A. had both. O'Neal, who averaged 33.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the series, laid waste to the 76ers when they didn't double-team him -- Philadelphia center Dikembe Mutombo took more shots to the jaw, courtesy of Shaq, than a bad prizefighter -- and passed beautifully out of the pivot when they did. With a pair of championship rings at age 29, O'Neal has the jewelry, the longevity and the talent to join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the shortlist of the greatest centers of all time. "I have never seen a better player," says Larry Brown, Philly's 61-year-old coach.
The Finals belonged to O'Neal much as the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs had belonged to Bryant. Against the Sixers, Bryant found little room to make his acrobatic forays to the rim, so he played with admirable restraint yet still stuffed his stat line: 24.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The less-celebrated Lakers, particularly Fox, guard Derek Fisher and forward Robert Horry, took turns demoralizing Philadelphia with three-pointers, and L.A.'s underrated defense made certain that Iverson, who shot only 40.7% in the series, rarely had a view of the basket that wasn't obstructed by at least one outstretched hand. "It's hard to find a single area where they didn't play well," Philly guard Eric Snow said after Game 5. "This is their second championship, and I'm sure they're thinking that it's not their last one."
It is a measure of how limitless the possibilities seem that Bryant, who as a rookie four years ago brashly declared that the Lakers would win 10 titles during his career, was asked during the championship celebration whether he'd like to amend that prediction ... upward. He said he'd let his estimate stand.
"I'm greedy," O'Neal says. "I'm very greedy." That greed seems to have been passed on to his teammates. The 15-1 postseason record isn't only a pretty number for the record books, it's also an indication that the Lakers never lost their appetite, even when they had all but devoured the opposition. In each of their four chances to close out a series, they eliminated the opponent with the cold-blooded efficiency that only great teams consistently muster. "If they're not a great team," Sixers forward George Lynch said after Game 5, "then I don't want to run into one that is."
It's no secret that the Lakers' chances of building a dynasty rest on how long this era of good feeling between O'Neal and Bryant lasts. Even in the postclincher giddiness it was hard to find anyone in the Los Angeles locker room who felt sure the two stars had resolved the differences between them, which had fractured the team during most of the regular season. "Hopeful, yes; certain, no," Fox said. "I think it helps that they've seen once again how much we can accomplish when we're all on the same page. But Shaq and Kobe are two strong-willed guys, and there are no guarantees."
Even on the brink of the title, Bryant could muster little more than cautious optimism. "If you look at the teams that have won championships, a lot of them go through some adversity in the regular season," he said the day before Game 5. "We came through it this year even stronger than we were. So I don't see [tension on the team] being a threat at all. But I'll let you know in October." Bryant seemed to be only half joking when he said of his partnership with O'Neal, "We're happy -- until next January when people start talking about trading one of us."
The Bryant-O'Neal rift may be a chronic condition, but it's one that the Lakers can probably live with if it's monitored and managed. Former team president Jerry West, the franchise's Obi Wan Kenobi, will no doubt have more meetings with Bryant like the one they had in March, when he invited Bryant and his agent, Arn Tellem, to his home for a spaghetti dinner and wound up counseling Kobe for four hours on how to adjust his game to work more smoothly with O'Neal's. Similarly, Shaq is sure to have more phone conversations with West like the ones they had this season, in which West reminded him that because of Bryant's youth (he's 22) and still-evolving talents, playing with him would require extra patience. It was telling that O'Neal and Bryant both thanked West publicly during the championship celebration without being asked about him. "He was a big part of the success we had this year," O'Neal said. "A huge part."
The distance between Bryant and the rest of his teammates may also threaten the Lakers' chemistry. Toward the end of last season Bryant began to overcome his tendency to withdraw socially, though some Lakers say he reverted to his old ways this year, curling up with his headphones on team flights while other players played cards or talked. Then on a flight during the team's last road trip of the regular season, Bryant put down the headphones and joined in. "It was a small thing," says guard Brian Shaw, "but it meant a lot."
Bryant downplays the significance of that gesture. "I love these guys," he says. "I don't think I've done anything different or made any changes in the way I am. But if guys feel more comfortable around me than they once did, that's great."
O'Neal and Bryant are as comfortable around each other as they probably ever will be. Although they are not close friends, their differences have always been more professional than personal, each believing he should be the first option in the offense. They sometimes try too hard to show that there's no animosity between them, with displays of affection in front of the cameras that feel forced, but they can be genuinely friendly in private moments. Before an April game in Boston they were talking near the locker room, behind a partially closed door, unaware that anyone could see them. O'Neal leaned over, Bryant whispered something in his ear, and they fell against each other, laughing. "People think we hate each other," O'Neal says. "We don't hate each other. If we did, we never could have done this two years in a row."
It's possible that the Lakers' rocky regular season was humbling enough to help them avoid falling into the same traps in the future. "We thought we could take shortcuts because we were better than everyone else," Fisher says. "I think that's where a lot of the bickering came from. Kobe probably thought, Hey, I did it Shaq's way last year and we won, so now let's see if we can win my way. Then you had Shaq thinking, If Kobe's going to do it his way and leave me out, then I'm not going to play into that and help him. Phil and the rest of us were saying, What the hell is going on? I thought we had this hashed out last year. I guess we didn't appreciate what we had until we admitted to ourselves that if we didn't get it together, we were going to lose our championship and possibly our whole team."
Even if the Lakers have to relearn some of the same lessons every season, they'll surely remember that it's not necessary for their two leading men to be best friends in order to win. Late last Friday night Bryant was still clutching the championship trophy when he boarded the team bus back to the hotel. He walked down the aisle past guard Ron Harper, who was puffing on a stogie, past other teammates sipping beer and chatting on their cell phones, without a word to any of them. He made his way to the last row, where there were seats on only one side of the aisle, then placed the trophy on the window seat and settled down next to it, making it impossible for anyone to sit beside him. His cap pulled low on his forehead, he stared out the window before closing his eyes for a few seconds.
Moments later, O'Neal boarded the bus, still carrying his MVP trophy. He walked to the back, jawing with teammates along the way, and flopped into a seat one row in front of Bryant and across the aisle. The two stars acknowledged each other with a nod and a few words, then Bryant went back to looking out the window on one side of the bus while O'Neal mugged for a camera crew outside the other. The bus pulled away with Shaq and Kobe facing in opposite directions and sharing very little, except the spoils of victory.
Issue date: June 25, 2001