ORLANDO, Fla. – Kobe Bryant pulled Phil Jackson close, embracing his coach and looking him straight in the eyes. After all they’d been through, this was their moment, their championship, their time. This was the one to top all the others.
The one without Shaq.
The one to pass Red.
Bryant’s seven-year chase of a coveted championship is finally over. He’s got his fourth title, and Jackson his record 10th. One year after failing in the NBA Finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
The Lakers earned their 15th title on Sunday night as Bryant scored 30 points and Pau Gasol added 14 and 15 rebounds in a 99-86 Game 5 win over the Orlando Magic.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s enormous shadow – at last. His fourth championship assured a strong case can be made for Bryant being the league’s best player since Michael Jordan retired.
Bryant, who averaged 32.4 points and was named finals MVP, said the can-he-win-without-Shaq talk annoyed him.
“It was like Chinese water torture,” he said. “I would cringe every time. I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it. You can say it until you’re blue in the face and rationalize it until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it.
“I think we as a team answered the call because they understood the challenge that I had, and we all embraced it.”
O’Neal, now with the Phoenix Suns, was glad to see Bryant win another title.
“Congratulations kobe, u deserve it,” O’Neal said on his Twitter page. “You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”
O’Neal’s former coach now stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bow-legged Zen Master who won six league titles in the 1990s with Jordan in Chicago, now has won four with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in finals history.
“I’ll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red,” Jackson said. “He was a great guy.”
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top of their games.
Jackson, who once called Bryant “a selfish player,” now sees the 30-year-old in a far different light.
“He’s learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him,” Jackson said. “That’s really important for him to have learned that because he knew that he had to give to get back in return, and so he’s become a giver rather than just a guy that a demanding leader. That’s been great for him and great to watch.”
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the postseason scowling, snarling, baring his teeth and all but breathing fire at anything in his path.
“I was just completely locked in,” he said.
After the final horn, Bryant leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates, who bounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Bryant then gave his long, heartfelt hug and shared a few words with Jackson before sweeping up his little girls, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
“It finally felt like a big old monkey was off my back,” he said. “It felt so good to be able to have this moment. For this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you’ve been through, it’s top of the list, man.”
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had two overtime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying 3-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic’s superhero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points, took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, but was only 3 of 12 on 3s for Orlando, which after living on the 3, finally died by it.
The Magic went just 8 of 27 from long range.
“I thought our guys fought hard,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But they just had an answer for everything.”