Kobe Bryant looked in the mirror in the late afternoon Sunday and saw buried reflections of his former self. Maybe he noticed the scarring of 13 NBA seasons here and there, the cheekbones and other features that grow pronounced as a man turns 30, the shoulders thickened by hard work.
The young Kobe was a prodigy who didn't -- who couldn't possibly -- understand what he was accomplishing seven years ago when he won the last of three consecutive titles. In his place now is the Kobe Bryant who earned his fourth championship with a 99-86 victory Sunday (RECAP | BOX)against the Magic in Game 5 of the NBA Finals: a relatively old star with a wife kissing him on the cheek and a young daughter cradled in each of his arms as he celebrated on the court among his teammates.
The young Kobe used to seem very much alone, especially in victory. But the Kobe Bryant who rules his sport today finds himself encircled by respect and gratitude. As the last seconds of the long seven years ticked away, he was embraced by teammates and coaches who appreciated all that he had done for them.
"There was a point when we sat together and watched tape,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson recalled of a film session they shared eight or nine years ago, after the young Kobe had been drawn into a needless one-on-one scoring duel against Vince Carter in Toronto.
"So I talked to him about leadership and his ability to be a leader, and he said, 'I'm ready to be a captain right now.' And I said, 'But no one is ready to follow you.' He was 22 at the time. He was a young guy.
"In those years that have ensued, he's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him. And I think that's really important for him to have learned that, because he knew that he had to give to get back in return. He's become a giver rather than just a guy that's a demanding leader, and that's been great for him and great to watch.''
So many of his teammates are successful creations of this new, older Kobe Bryant. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza -- none of them was viewed as anything like a championship contender until each began to play with Bryant. In turn, Bryant had to learn to see things their way, to help each of them develop as Bryant himself has matured in the seven years since he and Shaquille O'Neal drank the last of their champagne together.
The young Kobe used to be accused of playing like Shaq's little brother, as if he would try to get away with stealing as many shots for himself as he could. He would always bristle against the claims that he was a selfish scorer, but now look at what he has become. The young star who could not be trusted has turned into this Kobe Bryant upon whom the Lakers -- and Jackson especially -- depend to make the right decisions.
"I just don't have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism anymore,'' said Bryant, who was named Finals MVP (for the first time) after he led the Lakers with 32.4 points and 7.4 assists. "It was just silly. But it is what it is, I wasn't going to try to argue about it. I mean, that does nothing. So you just accept the challenge and try to prove them wrong.''
The criticism was that he couldn't win without Shaq. But now that he has turned into the kind of champion who wins with a front line of Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the demand to win without Shaq seems far less relevant than the real achievement: Bryant has now led (or helped lead) his franchise to championships seven years apart, which is a remarkable feat for a wing player.
Think about how the young Kobe used to play. Jackson used to have to talk him out of trying to dominate as a scorer because that Kobe was capable athletically of doing just about anything he wanted to do. With defenses collapsing around Shaq, he could create any kind of shot for himself at any time, and for all of the talk of Kobe's reliance on Shaq, the truth was that they needed each other. Shaq couldn't have won without the balance of young Kobe's explosive scoring on the perimeter.
Bryant won this latest championship in a different way, by playing the angles, by outmaneuvering defenders and outmuscling them when necessary. For those who continue to view him within the prism of the young Kobe, this Game 5 was his once-and-for-all coming-out. After withstanding a fast start by the Magic, who were down 3-1 and desperate to avoid losing on their home floor, Bryant responded on successive trips by pouring down a deep jumper followed by an uncontested three-pointer in transition that instantly brought the Lakers back within 19-15.
There were moments Sunday when the young Kobe would reemerge, like the time when Bryant responded to the harassing defense of Mickael Pietrus by turning to face him down. Bryant made one fake and drove left to the baseline, hanging in the air to clang down a dunk like a skateboarder finishing a jump. He can still do those kinds of things, but they don't define him anymore. Instead, he has grown up to be the team captain who blocked a game-best four shots and passed for a team-high five assists in addition to his typical 30 points and six rebounds.
The Lakers took control with a 16-0 run in the second quarter that Orlando failed to interrupt with three timeouts, and in another era the young Kobe would have scored (or wanted to score) most of those points. But he has turned into the kind of versatile star who was contributing but one basket while distributing three assists among Ariza (who scored seven during the run among his 15 points overall) and Derek Fisher, who at 34 is the only Laker older than Bryant.
The only worry Bryant threw at his own team came in the opening minutes when Orlando's Rashard Lewis incidentally slapped at Bryant's injured right pinkie. A ligament was torn in the finger in February 2008, but Bryant has continued to play without surgery to help lead his country to the Olympic gold medal last summer and then to have an uninterrupted season in pursuit of this championship. He was in agony during the ensuing Lakers timeout, but that pain appeared to energize Bryant as he returned to the court. He played like a prizefighter who has suffered a bad cut and realizes he needs to strike fast while he still can, before a deepening of the wound can sideline him.
"I was just locked in, just completely locked in,'' Bryant said. "I think it's a matter of understanding the moment. It's also understanding your team and the lead that they have to follow. That's what I tried to do. I was grumpy for a while, and now I'm just ecstatic.''
Seven years later, he had helped Jackson win his NBA-record 10th championship, surpassing Red Auerbach. And then Bryant received the Finals MVP trophy, recently renamed after Bill Russell, from Auerbach's former star himself, the ornate completion of a circle that began one year ago when Bryant's Lakers were losing the Finals by 39 points in Game 6 to the hated Celtics.
Now Kobe Bryant looks in the mirror, and what does he see? Seven years gone by, and they've made him the champion he is today. The young Kobe wouldn't know what to do against this guy.