ORLANDO, Fla. -- Where does
Bryant may now be viewed as being on the same tier as Shaq, who was the dominant force in basketball and MVP of the Finals during all three of their championships together with the Lakers from 2000 through '02. The tension that ultimately divided them was created by both of them, but one of the obvious issues was mired in Bryant's ambition to fulfill himself. He wanted to become more than Shaq's "sidekick," as he referred to himself disparagingly in
"From the standpoint of responding to the challenge," Bryant said Sunday, "from people saying I couldn't do it without him, [winning the title] feels good because you prove people wrong." But he chooses to focus more on what they accomplished, as opposed to the additional titles they might have won.
"I think people can look at the special teams that we had together," Bryant said after being named Finals MVP following the Lakers' Game 5 victory against the Magic. "It's probably the first 'dynamic duo' that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships. For me, it's about the years that we had, but also enjoying the ones to come."
Bryant's achievement is unique. Not only has he won his titles in different eras seven years apart, but he also has grown into an entirely different player while developing leadership skills that seemed beyond him when he played with O'Neal.
Then there is the matter of Bryant's supporting cast. Jordan had
The argument can be made that Bryant won this championship without a Hall of Fame teammate. Maybe
Gasol became an All-Star for the Lakers while playing alongside Bryant for a full season, and he turned in a highly effective Finals defensively against
"It was annoying," Bryant said of the incessant reminders that he hadn't -- and maybe couldn't -- win a championship without Shaq. "It was like Chinese water torture -- just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. 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 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."
Bryant appeared to recognize his place in the game last summer during the Olympics, when his peers deferred to his leadership. He established the daily mood of the team -- whether this was to be a day of relaxation or of all business -- and the rest of the team followed his lead. When they needed scoring at the end of the gold medal game against Spain, it was Bryant who made the big plays down the stretch.
In a strange way -- strange for a player with multiple rings, an MVP award and hundreds of millions in earnings -- the Olympics supplied the positive feedback he had long sought but rarely received. In his early years with the Lakers, he grated against his secondary role on the team, and even when he tried to "play the right way," the results were mixed and he was criticized as often as not for his decision-making. But last summer in Beijing he turned the corner, and the years of adapting to
"He's grown up," said L.A. guard
Bryant's leadership became obvious in February, when Bynum suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury during a difficult Eastern trip that included games at Boston and Cleveland. Bryant took it upon himself to drive the Lakers to wins against the Celtics and Cavaliers while also throwing in a Madison Square Garden-record 61 points against the Knicks. Clearly he was not going to allow the injury to Bynum dissuade his team from its mission.
All of these leadership achievements have raised him to peer status with the best players of the last 30 years. While this was not a dominant Lakers team, the upside of young teammates such as Bynum and