Arash Markazi
Wednesday May 7th, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant never thought this day would come.

Feeling like "an outcast" his whole life, Bryant viewed the MVP award as a popularity contest driven by those who didn't understand him and never would. It's the only way he could come to grips with the fact he had never finished better than a distant third in the annual ballots.

"I didn't expect to win it, to be honest with you. ... I'm still surprised," Bryant said Tuesday after being presented with the award at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel.

Bryant looked like a nervous kid gazing over the auditorium before his first student class president debate. Sitting to his left was Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who refused to trade Bryant during a tumultuous offseason. To Bryant's right were the same teammates he had disparaged by saying he could never win a championship with them. Leaning on an exit door, ready to bolt after Bryant spoke, was former Lakers general manager Jerry West, who had mentored Bryant after acquiring him in a draft-day deal 11 years ago.

"I'm nervous right now," Bryant said. "And I really don't get nervous."

The MVP award -- and the top-seeded Lakers' first extended playoff run in years -- is a direct result of the newfound bond Bryant has forged with his teammates. It was no accident that his best friends on the team had often been guys who spent only one season in Los Angeles, like Karl Malone and Caron Butler. His offseason trade demands, highlighted by his infamous parking-lot tirade directed at center Andrew Bynum and general manager Mitch Kupchak, didn't so much come as a surprise but rather as yet another complaint in a series of criticisms about the Lakers from Bryant, whom Lamar Odom had called "the bad cop to my good cop."

Before training camp in Hawaii, however, while there was still speculation about Bryant's future with the team, Odom decided it was time to do away with the good cop/bad cop dynamic and begin molding the team into a unit.

"I don't want to take too much credit, but in training camp we became tight," Odom said. "I made sure that we had a chef and that we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. That's when the bonding started. Even the things he was going through off the court made us tighter. Adversity makes a family tighter, and that's when this team became a family. My grandma used to say, 'You could spend time with the devil and start to like him if you hang out every day.' No one here's the devil, but we had to start hanging out to like each other."

Slowly, Odom said, Bryant changed. He was letting his guard down, joking with his teammates, going out with them, talking to them as if they were his peers instead of obstacles in his pursuit of winning another championship.

"You know, sometimes personalities rub off on you," Odom said. "That's something that I think that's happened with me and Luke [Walton] and some of the other guys. You have to have fun around us, and I think that part of us rubbed off on him. We all grow up, but it just so happened that Kobe's grown up in front of the world."

Coach Phil Jackson, who once left the team partly due to constant disputes with Bryant, embraced him twice during Tuesday's ceremony. Jackson said Kobe's transformation during training camp was the turning point in his conversion from the league's most talented player to its MVP.

"There was a lot of dispute, dismay, disorganization, disarray before camp that seemed to refocus our team," Jackson said. "Kobe, in our initial meeting in Hawaii when we started training camp, got up and said, 'I'm Kobe Bryant, co-captain of the team. It's all about winning in this game and I'm here to win a championship,' and then he sat down. He knew to do that he had to have the help of his teammates and he started to get them more involved."

When Odom began seeing Bryant pass the ball to young players such as Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and Jordan Farmar, all of whom have had career years off the bench, he knew that the team and Bryant had turned the corner.

"He knew he wasn't going to beat teams by himself," Odom said. "He's so good that it makes sense for him to think that because I've seen him do it before. I've seen him have [62 points] against Dallas, I've seen him get 81 on Toronto and just dismantle a team, but he understood that we had to get better. When he did that, when Kobe starts trusting you, that makes you play even better because when someone that good trusts you and drives you, you can't help but to get better."

Last Friday night, far from Honolulu where the Lakers first broke bread as a team, the players gathered at trendy L.A. pizzeria Mozza for a team meal, a new ritual before each playoff round. During the dinner, news broke that Bryant would be named MVP. When the check came (Bryant picked up the tab), teammates started a chant that Kobe had heard at Staples Center for the better part of his career but didn't think would materialize into anything more.

"M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P!"

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