Monday June 15th, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Where does Kobe Bryant rate among the modern superstar NBA champions? Here is a good place to start:

Michael Jordan -- 6 championships Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- 6 Magic Johnson -- 5 Kobe Bryant -- 4 Tim Duncan -- 4 Shaquille O'Neal -- 4

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 Phil Jackson's book on their final season together.

"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 Scottie Pippen for all six of his championships, and Magic was paired with Jabbar for all five titles with the Lakers. Duncan won with different rosters in San Antonio -- with David Robinson for the first and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for the latter three. And, of course, Shaq won as the inside complement to Dwyane Wade, who was MVP of the 2006 Finals with Miami.

The argument can be made that Bryant won this championship without a Hall of Fame teammate. Maybe Pau Gasol will earn that kind of standing eventually, but it was one short year ago -- following the Lakers' 39-point thrashing in Game 6 of the Finals at Boston -- that Los Angeles was denigrated for having no strong second star to complement Bryant.

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 Dwight Howard while managing 18.6 points on just 12 shots per game. The Lakers may win more titles as Gasol continues to grow into his new role and Andrew Bynum matures, the health of his knees permitting. At the moment, however, Bryant's victory is an example of how he has made the most of what he has around him.

"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 Phil Jackson's teachings paid off all at once.

"He's grown up," said L.A. guard Derek Fisher, who was a fellow Lakers rookie with Bryant 13 years ago. "He's doing everything that we could ever ask him to do in terms of leading the team and performance on the court, during the games, in practice and trying to be the type of guy that guys will follow, as opposed to just dominating performances by himself and then expecting everyone to catch up to him. He's really done an unbelievable job getting everybody to believe and buy into what we were trying to do this year.''

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 Trevor Ariza (as well as the continued improvement of Gasol, who proved reliable in the post against the stronger Howard) gives Bryant hope of winning a fifth title -- which would equal the achievement of his childhood idol, Magic Johnson, and leave him one ring short of Jordan's six. For a former league MVP who will enter next season at age 31, those goals may remain within reach.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.