You look at Shaquille O'Neal, 30, and Kobe Bryant, 23, as they were last week at Continental Airlines Arena—smiling, singing, smoking stogies, swigging and squirting champagne, sharing the championship trophy—and you wonder: Could it get any better than this? A year ago Bryant, an indispensable player, to be sure, but not exactly one of the guys, sat alone in a shower stall as his team celebrated a second consecutive title. But now he and the big fella and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers are a rock-solid Ya-Ya Brotherhood, and the NBA's future looks to be paved in purple and gold. How many in a row can Los Angeles win? Four? Five? Ten? How good can Shaq and Kobe become? Better than Jordan and Pippen? Montana and Rice? Hell, Lennon and McCartney?
With a 113-107 Game 4 victory on June 12 over the New Jersey Nets, the Lakers became only the seventh team to sweep a Finals and only the third franchise to win three straight championships. They treated the Nets like so much sawdust on the floor-irritating but easily collected, bagged and discarded. As the Lakers celebrated in the wretchedly claustrophobic visitors' locker room, their hairbreadth conquest of the Sacramento Kings in the seven-game Western Conference finals seemed as if it had somehow been part of the master plan, a herculean labor that they had to complete to realize their destiny.
The postclincher celebration seemed no less festive for its being held 2,500 miles from La La Land; the Lakers are used to that, having made merry last season in Philadelphia after the 76ers fell in five. Detained by interviews, Shaq and Kobe strolled in late to the locker room and were greeted by a sprinkler system of champagne as corks banged off the ceiling. Small forward Rick Fox, who was born in Toronto but raised in the Bahamas, waved a Bahamian flag. Point guard Derek Fisher, the Lakers' rugrat of a defender, chanted, One, two, three. Samaki Walker, O'Neal's backup, carried his 2-year-old son, Dabaji, in his arms, telling him soothingly, "Daddy will be done soon." Mitch Richmond, the six-time All-Star guard who played only four minutes in the postseason yet earned the first ring of his 14-year career, eluded jet streams of bubbly and answered versions of the question, Would you be happier had you been a real contributor? (Sure, responded Richmond calmly, but a ring is a ring.) In a small room off the locker room, coach Phil Jackson lit a victory cigar—he has that ritual in common with Red Auerbach, though he smokes his in private—and celebrated quietly with four of his five children.
It all seemed so...right. Detractors—particularly the still-bitter Kings—will say that luck has propelled the Lakers, and while good fortune has played a part, their ascent seems more like kismet. Almost everyone on the team who matters started somewhere else. O'Neal was unhappy in Orlando, floundered at first in L.A., then found a mentor-motivator in Jackson. The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant in 1996 but shipped him off almost immediately, unwilling to gamble that a high school swingman could become a superstar. Jackson, the guiding hand in the Chicago Bulls' two three-peats, was put off by the it-was-all-because-of-me chest-beating of general manager Jerry Krause and decided to start anew on the Left Coast. Fox? Played six seasons for the Boston Celtics. Forward Robert Horry? Came from the Phoenix Suns and before that won two championships with the Houston Rockets. Walker? Toured Texas with Dallas and San Antonio, but neither the Mavericks nor the Spurs loved him. Backup guard Brian Shaw, who contributed with on-the-court composure and off-the-court leadership? Played for six teams before finding a home in the Jackson system.
With as many as seven free agents on the roster, Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak has some work to do in the off-season. But the key components are locked up tighter than a bank on Sunday. O'Neal is under contract for four more seasons at $26.2 million per. Bryant is in the third year of a six-year deal that pays him $13.5 million annually, and this summer L.A. plans to offer him a three-year, $54.8 million extension, the maximum allowed. Coach Phil Jackson is signed up for two more seasons at a salary of $6 million and has given no sign that he wants to chuck it all and go fly-fishing in Montana. The other significant members of the crew are also safely lashed to the deck: Fisher ($3 million annually) has four more years, Fox ($4.6 million) has three and Horry ($5.3 million) has one, with a team option for another. That threesome knows that Shaq butters the bread and Kobe spreads the jam, and they're happy in their roles. Remember Tyronn Lue, a bit player on last season's team who sought greener pastures in Washington? Yo, Ty, how did that work out?
And now the Lakers chase history, their motivation as explicit as the Superman tat on Shaq's left biceps. Had Jordan not twice left Chicago (once for baseball and once for a retirement that didn't take), the Bulls would have been favored to win four in a row, but he did, so they weren't. No NBA team has won more than three straight titles since Auerbach's Celtics took eight in a row from 1958-59 through '65-66. The Lakers have won 14 championships, two fewer than the Celtics, so that is something to shoot for as well. With one more title Jackson would also surpass Auerbach as the coach with the most championships (10).
There are other magic numbers in their sights. One that Kobe and Shaq have a bead on is seven—with that many titles they would surpass both Jordan and Pippen ( Chicago) and Bill Russell and Bob Cousy ( Boston), who were recognized as the dynamic duos on six championship teams. Russell won 11 championships in Boston (the final two as player-coach), as did Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, with the Montreal Canadiens. O'Neal has but a slim chance of equaling that number, but Bryant is another matter. Russell was 23, Bryant's age now, when he won his first championship.
Does Kobe realize what he's chasing, what he's already achieved? To see Bryant bopping his way through the crowd and commotion after Game 4, slapping hands and signing shirts, talking and laughing, somehow making that hideous Three-Peat jacket he was wearing look hip, one saw the essence of NBA superstardom, early 21st century. That scene wasn't the birth of cool—Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe and Julius Erving had come long before him—but Kobe is where cool's at right now.
How could we have ever doubted these guys, even in a season when O'Neal missed 15 games with suspensions and toe, wrist and ankle ailments, when so many of the supporting cast members played like dogs, when challengers emerged all over the West? "In the depth of winter," Camus wrote in his essay Return to Tipasa, "I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Of course there did.