Many in the organization did not understand why Bryant insisted on playing with the broken finger. He could afford to take time off in December; they needed him healthy in June. As it turned out, playing in December is exactly what prepared Bryant for June. He spent the regular season refashioning his shot in time for the playoffs. The transition was not always easy—his field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point percentage all dipped as Person's tinkering intensified—but it was necessary. Although the fracture healed, Bryant was left with an arthritic knuckle on his index finger that is swollen and painful but appeared to affect him not at all. "It almost helped to some degree," says Lakers shooting coach Craig Hodges. "The index finger is just supposed to hold the ball. The middle finger is supposed to do the work. Look at the net when Kobe shoots now. The ball sinks to the bottom, and Pow! The net pops up. That's the backspin he's getting from the middle finger."
BRYANT'S LONGEVITY IS A BY-PRODUCT OF THE MANY subtle adjustments he has made over the years, starting in 1999, when he broke his right hand and spent all of training camp developing his left. Back then, defenders would dare Bryant to shoot from outside, an unfathomable strategy today. They also tried to lock him up in the post, equally unthinkable. "I don't know any better post player in the game now," West says. Next up for Bryant, says Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, "he will learn to come off screens so the ball will work for him and he won't have to beat everybody." Bryant's endless improvements require a kind of humility, the best player in the game forever open to the idea that he can get better.
In May it would have sounded preposterous to call Bryant the best, since he had supposedly lost that title to LeBron James. For the second straight season James won MVP, and yet for the second straight postseason Bryant cast doubt over the validity of those votes. "The perception that the torch has been passed, and somebody else is the best in the game, is what drives him now," said Lakers assistant Brian Shaw during the playoffs. "Especially because he's still playing and the guy who's supposed to be the best isn't."
Bryant recognized as far back as his early 20s that the next generation was gunning for him and he had to stay a few jab steps ahead. In 2000 he spoke at the ABCD basketball camp at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey, and at one point in his speech a voice shouted from the back of the auditorium, "I could take you one-on-one!" The voice belonged to Lenny Cooke, who at the time was the top-rated high school sophomore in the country, LeBron before LeBron. An hour later Bryant walked into the gym and sat next to Gary Charles, president of Grassroots Basketball of America. "Where's Lenny?" he asked. Charles pointed to Court 1. Bryant watched closely for 15 minutes, then tapped Charles and told him, "He has nothing for me."
A full decade later Bryant is still fending off the future. He was the Finals headliner, along with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, crusty thirtysomethings stubbornly resisting the hands of time. Bryant outlasted the Big Three, looking a generation younger as he logged 40-plus minutes during crucial games. In winning his fifth title, Bryant proved that neither the Celtics nor age could bring him down. He is as potent as ever.
It is hard to imagine that Bryant could be any more beloved in Los Angeles, but now that he has beaten the Celtics, he has cleared one more hurdle on his way to becoming the Greatest Laker Ever. He's already gotten at least two endorsements: When the ubiquitous Kiss Cam at Staples Center 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.