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.