The Lakers' bus left TD Garden in the middle of the night, flanked by four policemen on motorcycles, basketball's version of a funeral procession. Inside the bus it was silent, a team shell-shocked by a 39-point horse-whipping to end its season. Outside it was bedlam, a city elated by its first NBA championship in 22 years. The Lakers were heading back to the Four Seasons at the same time revelers were pouring out of Boston bars, causing a human bottleneck in the streets. The bus was forced to stop, and as players and staff members peered out the windows, they noticed a crowd forming around them. One hand slapped the side of the bus, then another, followed by a hailstorm of hands and rocks and bottles. A security guard on the bus rushed for the door to make sure no one tried to open it. Outside, a policeman was knocked off his motorcycle. The bus was rocked back and forth until the driver finally found a clearing and the Lakers were whisked away to suffer in peace.
"It was the kind of thing," says one security official who was onboard, "that nobody forgets."
Least of all Kobe Bryant, with his elephantine memory and preternatural ability to turn failure into fuel. "It's never personal with me," Bryant says with a sarcastic grin, which of course is his way of saying that it's always personal. For a child of the 1980s who joined the Lakers before he was old enough to vote, there was perhaps nothing more personal than the loss to the Celtics in the Finals two years ago, punctuated by the 131--92 blowout in Game 6 and the bus ride in which it was rubbed in his face. "A loss like that," intones former Celtic Bill Walton, "is an indelible stain on the soul." Bryant will not go that far, but after he beat the Celtics at TD Garden in January on a fadeaway jumper with 7.3 seconds left, he mockingly hummed the team's unofficial anthem in the shower: I'm Shipping Up to Boston by Dropkick Murphys. Bryant will now get a second chance to dropkick the Celtics in the Finals, with much more than revenge at stake.
It is hard to imagine that Bryant could be any more beloved in Los Angeles—when the ubiquitous Kiss Cam found actor Dustin Hoffman during the Western Conference finals, he planted a long smooch on his wife, Lisa, only to pull away and reveal a picture of Bryant wedged between their lips—but a victory over the Celtics would take him to Nicholsonian heights. Although several Lakers legends never beat the Celtics in the Finals, Bryant is surrounded by those who did: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tutors the Los Angeles big men, Magic Johnson is a part owner, James Worthy hosts pre- and postgame TV shows, and Michael Cooper coaches the women's team down the road at USC. They are constant reminders that Bryant probably has at least one more hurdle to clear to become the Greatest Laker Ever. "It's not about beating the Celtics in the regular season," Cooper says. "You have to beat them in the playoffs. That's when you become part of the club."
Bryant has won four championships, and in all of them the Finals were an anticlimax. The more compelling matchups came in the Western Conference playoffs. That will not be the case this time, with Bryant looking for the cherry atop his legacy against the team that makes everything difficult. Boston traditionally double-covers Bryant almost every possession, and there is no reason to change, given that he is coming off the best statistical series of his career—33.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds against the Suns in the Western Conference finals. Bryant shot 52.1%, remarkable when degree of difficulty is taken into consideration, but as Lakers forward Lamar Odom puts it, "He makes the incredible normal." When Bryant iced the series in Game 6 on a double-clutch, off-balance fadeaway three near the sideline with Grant Hill tucked into his waistband, Suns coach Alvin Gentry said, "Good defense, Grant." To which Bryant replied, "Not good enough," slapping Gentry playfully on the backside.
Bryant most likely won't have many more chances at the Celtics, given their age and, to a lesser extent, his. Bryant is only 31, but NBA stars are like sports cars, in that years do not matter as much as miles. Including the playoffs, Bryant has logged 44,904 career minutes, more than Larry Bird, who played until he was 35. By the time Michael Jordan reached those minutes, he was in Washington. Bryant experienced his first real brush with basketball mortality this season, cloaked as usual in injuries to his back, knee, ankle and hand. He sat out more games than in the previous four years combined. He acknowledged that he lost some elevation. When he scored 12 and 13 points in back-to-back first-round playoff games against the Thunder, a terrifying vision of the future flashed in front of the Lakers' eyes: Kobe Bryant, $30 million-a-year role player. "We were concerned," says Los Angeles director of athletic performance Chip Schaefer, "that he wasn't the Kobe Bryant we've all seen."
Bryant had fluid drained from his knee in the middle of the Oklahoma City series, took a few days off from practice, and then the lift in his legs returned as suddenly as it had vanished. When Bryant refers to himself as "old," stroking the nonexistent stubble on his cheeks, he is being facetious about that as well, a dig at anybody who would believe it. "The notion that I'm old and won't figure things out, that's funny to me," Bryant says. "They should know me better."
Indeed, when Father Time tried to come for him this season, he gave the old guy the middle finger.
When Chuck Person arrived in Los Angeles for training camp, he had never before said a word to Bryant. Person, a former Pacers and Kings assistant, was hired by the Lakers as a special assistant because of his close relationship with the newly acquired Ron Artest. The Lakers wanted somebody to help Artest with his transition. They did not need anybody to help Bryant with his shooting. But Person, who spent 13 years stretching NBA defenses, had studied Bryant's stroke from afar, marveling at his footwork, his vertical leap, his power of separation. "There was just one thing," Person says, "that I felt I could enhance."
A young player is taught, from the time he can lift the ball overhead, to finish the shot with his index finger pointed at the ground. "Kobe was following through with so much of the index that the ball was turning ever so slightly off that finger and he was getting a little sidespin," Person says. "When he wasn't right on, the ball would roll off the rim." Person believed he could help Bryant, but he had to be tactful about it. He could not just walk up to one of the best scorers ever and tinker with his shot. He needed an opening.