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WHEN IT WAS OVER, AND CONFETTI FLUTTERED DOWN IN STAPLES CENTER LIKE a June snowfall, it was hard not to think that the Lakers had us in mind this year. ¶ Sure, this team was constructed, groomed and deployed with the goal of winning a championship, but one could be forgiven for thinking the Lakers had a second, equally important goal in mind: our entertainment. ¶ For starters, how else can one explain Ron Artest? Consider: Were a screenwriter to devise a character as loony as Ron, with a backstory like Ron's, and have him say and do the things that Ron said and did this season...let's be honest, you wouldn't buy it. Too contrived. Too out-there. ¶ After all, this is a man who in the last year recorded a barely coherent rap tribute to Michael Jackson; dyed his hair purple and gold and shaved all manner of mantras into it; cheerfully admitted he used to drink during halftime; took some of the worst, avert-your-eyes shots in the history of the NBA playoffs; and went 1 for 10 in Game 2 of the Finals only to afterward proclaim himself "happy" with his offensive game, adding that he felt he'd played "great." (He was, no doubt, the only one.) And yet the Lakers couldn't have won the title without Ron—his defense, his clutch putback against Phoenix, his occasional hot-shooting games (including Games 6 and 7 of the Finals) and, most important, his willingness to mix it up and set a physical tone. Sure, Trevor Ariza was steadier and plenty effective and probably would have done the trick, but Ron was much, much more fun.
And how about Kobe? You'd figure it would have been good enough merely for Bryant to repeat, creating a second mini-dynasty with the Lakers and further separating himself from one legend (Shaq) while inching closer to another (MJ). But Bryant had to go and make it interesting. There was the busted finger, of course, swaddled in tape and sending his jumpers twirling off to the side. And the perception, no doubt galling to him, that he had been surpassed by a younger, bulkier superstar, one who proved to be more regular-season MVP than postseason killer.
But most disconcerting was how vulnerable Bryant looked at times early in the season. With every jumper released a little farther from the rim, and every drive stuffed, it seemed to remind us that even an athlete as finely conditioned as Kobe can't offset the cumulative effect of playing more than 45,000 NBA minutes and reaching an age, 31, when most normal men begin to peer toward the horizon, where the warm glow of over-35 leagues beckons. The numbers backed it up too. According to Hoopdata.com, this season Bryant had a greater percentage of his shots blocked, finished fewer and-ones and took just as many shots but made fewer of them. As one Western Conference team executive said before the postseason, "He's still good enough to carry them to the Finals and win it all, but I don't see the unstoppability that was there a few years ago."
And then, just like that, Kobe reverse-aged. Or drank from the squirt bottle of youth. Or flushed his system of stoppability. How else to explain how, after all these years, he turned in perhaps his greatest postseason—he averaged 29.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists—even though he is theoretically on the downside of his career? How else, that is, but to assume he did it for our entertainment. For which I'd like to be the first to say: Thank you, Kobe. (And also, while we're on the subject of tremendous entertainment, I'd also like to say thank you for that charmingly ridiculous WHITE HOT fashion photo shoot in the L.A. Times Magazine.)
Of course, these being the Lakers, there was plenty more drama. Phil Jackson couldn't just coach the team to another title, his 11th, without controversy, so talk began early about whether he'd come back or where else he might end up. Andrew Bynum, he of the great potential unrealized, injured himself again only to play valiantly in the Finals. Sasha Vujacic did his part by dating Maria Sharapova, while Shannon Brown appeared on the scene seemingly genetically engineered with the specific purpose of rousing dozing fans from their Southern California haze and orchestrated about a dozen of the most magnificent aerial assaults upon the rim ever witnessed. And finally, Lamar Odom up and married himself a Kardashian, which is the surest sign of all that the Lakers had us in mind when they pieced together this season.
In the end the whole group of them stood there up on that podium, a big, happy (if dysfunctional) NBA family. They might not have played like the 1980s versions of the Lakers, but this group was every bit as Showtime as its forebears, only in a different and quite gratifying way. The only question now, of course, is whether there will be a second sequel.
CHRIS BALLARD is a senior writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and author of The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA.