It is 2 a.m. on Thursday during the second week of the NBA Finals, and Kobe Bryant cannot sleep. In less than 24 hours the Lakers will make an unlikely comeback to win Game 4 in overtime, and three days later after a masterly 30-point performance in Game 5, Bryant will again be a champion. He will raise the Larry O'Brien trophy in his long arms, and he will laugh and hug his teammates long and deep and, yes, even tear up a little. The mask of intensity he has worn for months will finally fall.
But for now it remains. For now the Lakers lead the Magic 2--1 but are recovering from a painful loss in which Bryant missed late-game free throws. So he sits in a high-backed leather chair in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, surrounded by chandeliers and white orchids and gleaming white floors, in the company of friends—a group including his security guy, team employees and trainers—but alone. He says little, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his scalp, his eyes staring into the inky night, past the windows and the palm trees. He holds a Corona but rarely brings it to his lips. He looks like a man so tired he cannot sleep, a man nearing the end of a long journey. It is one that began well before November, when this season started, or even last June, when the Lakers fell to the Celtics in the Finals. As he will later explain in a quiet moment, he divides his career into two bodies of work: "the Shaquille era and the post-Shaquille era." Since the post-Shaq era began in 2004, when the Lakers traded O'Neal to Miami, many have doubted, again and again, that Bryant would ever earn a ring on his own. And while he has dismissed those who classify his legacy as Shaq-dependent, calling them "idiotic," he also knows how close he is to banishing that perception.
Minutes pass. Bryant stares and says nothing. He has waited this long. He can wait a little longer.
Thirteen years into an exceptional NBA career, this is finally Kobe Bryant's moment. Sure, these Finals were about Phil Jackson attaining his 10th ring as a coach (surpassing Red Auerbach's record) and guard Derek Fisher's nerveless performance in Game 4 (hitting a pair of clutch three-pointers to swing the series in Los Angeles's direction) and the emergence of 23-year-old Dwight Howard (proving, as he took the Magic to the Finals, that a big man need not scowl to be dominant). But let's be honest: This has been about Kobe all along.
So what do we make of him now? As polarizing a figure as there is in the league, he is deified in L.A. and often detested elsewhere, yet not even his detractors can deny his talent or accomplishments. At 30, Bryant has four championship rings (one more than Michael Jordan at the same age), two scoring titles, an MVP award and now a Finals MVP award. He has won for six coaches and as part of starting lineups that included Travis Knight and Smush Parker, suffering but one losing season (and when it comes to Bryant, suffering really is the right term). He has accomplished all this while playing for one team, showing the single-town loyalty fans cherish in their sports heroes. Those who would claim that he is a poor teammate or a poor leader would seem to be finally out of ammunition.
His performance in these Finals was memorable not necessarily for the bursts of scoring (though of course there were those) but for the moments that revealed both his evolution as a player and his near-desperate desire to win. The way he wrestled with Orlando's Rashard Lewis, elbowing and hooking and kneeing when he had to switch onto the 6'10" forward; the way he bared his teeth after big plays, like a feral animal; the way he dominated not only with baskets but also with passes—Bryant had nearly twice as many assists as any other player in the Finals. Though he would never admit it, his willingness to play whatever role his team needed may have reflected Bryant's awareness that the era of LeBron James and Dwight Howard is at hand, and that the best way for him to stay relevant, since he can't do it by sheer force of personality, is by winning.
So he gave himself over to this one goal as never before—which is saying a lot for Kobe. He shut down communication during the Finals, ignoring most phone calls and cutting off e-mail. He became so ornery that his two young daughters took to calling him Grumpy, from Snow White. And he sought nothing less than a similar commitment from his teammates. When 21-year-old center Andrew Bynum came out lackluster in Game 3, Bryant lit into him during a timeout, loud enough that a sideline reporter could overhear, "Get your head in the f------ game." This was not the soft, cuddly Bryant we were served up last month in ESPN's Spike Lee documentary Kobe Doin' Work. Rather, this was Kobe actually doing work. And it was far more compelling.
Thus, to see the man as he was during these Finals, not as Nike or Lee or Bryant might prefer, is to see a portrait of him at his competitive best, a man intent on controlling his own legacy.
It's late in the first half of Game 1 at Staples Center, and Bryant is on one of those rolls. He sticks one jumper, then another. At times like these, he says, he can sense the fear in his opponent, in this case 6'6" swingman Mickael Pietrus. "They get kind of nervous and are scared to touch you," Bryant explains. "It's no fun playing against players like that." He prefers a confident opponent. "It becomes more fun for you," he says, "because it becomes a challenge."
This desire for challenges—and isn't it remarkable that in the Finals he craves added obstacles—is what Bryant has spent the last decade trying to both feed off and harness. In recent years, at Jackson's suggestion, he's turned to meditation. He's also coming to terms with the fact that it isn't that his teammates don't want to win as much he does (though this is true), it's that they don't have the capacity to want to win as much as he does. Says Gregg Downer, Bryant's coach at Lower Merion (Pa.) High and a good friend, "As difficult as Kobe can be, as demanding as he is, I think [he and his teammates] all found some middle ground, a center."