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Double Dip Just one question remains for the Lakers after their second straight title: Can their stars stay aligned long enough to seize a third?

June 25, 2001
June 25, 2001

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June 25, 2001

Double Dip Just one question remains for the Lakers after their second straight title: Can their stars stay aligned long enough to seize a third?

Shaquille O'Neal strolled down a hallway of the First Union Center
in Philadelphia last Friday night carrying his Finals MVP trophy
and leaving the scent of Dom Perignon in his wake. "Smell that?"
he said. "That's what winning smells like."

This is an article from the June 25, 2001 issue Original Layout

He ducked as he entered a makeshift television studio, where his
purple-and-gold Los Angeles Lakers jersey hung on a blue curtain
next to Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson's. As Shaq
deadpanned his way through the interview, Kobe Bryant walked onto
the set to await his turn before the camera. With a garish Lakers
leather jacket over his uniform and his championship cap askew,
Bryant bobbed his head happily as he hummed to himself and
cradled the championship trophy, looking like a little boy who
had finally gotten the present he'd always wanted.

When O'Neal finished his interview, he saw Bryant standing in the
wings, and both men put their hardware down to high-five and
embrace. Then, as Shaq exited and Bryant took his place in front
of the camera, a member of the TV crew took down the O'Neal
jersey from the curtain, revealing Bryant's number 8 uniform
hanging behind it. In an instant Shaq's room had turned into
Kobe's.

The Lakers wrapped up their second straight NBA title with the
closest thing to a perfect postseason the league has ever known,
largely because they made a series of similarly deft transitions.
They went back and forth during the playoffs, from O'Neal's team
to Bryant's and from Bryant's to O'Neal's, without missing a
beat--and nearly without being beaten. The 108-96 victory over the
noble but overmatched Sixers in Game 5, which wrapped up the
championship, was L.A.'s 23rd in 24 games dating back to the
regular season, and only Philadelphia's overtime win in Game 1 at
the Staples Center kept the Lakers from becoming the first
champion to complete an undefeated postseason. "It's especially
satisfying to know that we didn't just win, we dominated," says
Los Angeles forward Rick Fox. "We made the regular season harder
than it had to be with our internal problems, but once we found
ourselves, there was no stopping this team."

Although the Lakers weren't as spectacular in the Finals as they
had been in the first three rounds of the playoffs, their
dismantling of the Sixers, especially in Philadelphia, was in its
own way equally impressive. The three road victories proved that
they could grind it out, that in a series billed as Sixers guts
against Lakers glitz, L.A. had both. O'Neal, who averaged 33.0
points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the series, laid waste
to the 76ers when they didn't double-team him--Philadelphia center
Dikembe Mutombo took more shots to the jaw, courtesy of Shaq,
than a bad prizefighter--and passed beautifully out of the pivot
when they did. With a pair of championship rings at age 29,
O'Neal has the jewelry, the longevity and the talent to join Bill
Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the
shortlist of the greatest centers of all time. "I have never seen
a better player," says Larry Brown, Philly's 61-year-old coach.

The Finals belonged to O'Neal much as the Western Conference
finals against the San Antonio Spurs had belonged to Bryant.
Against the Sixers, Bryant found little room to make his
acrobatic forays to the rim, so he played with admirable
restraint yet still stuffed his stat line: 24.6 points, 7.0
rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The less-celebrated Lakers,
particularly Fox, guard Derek Fisher and forward Robert Horry,
took turns demoralizing Philadelphia with three-pointers, and
L.A.'s underrated defense made certain that Iverson, who shot
only 40.7% in the series, rarely had a view of the basket that
wasn't obstructed by at least one outstretched hand. "It's hard
to find a single area where they didn't play well," Philly guard
Eric Snow said after Game 5. "This is their second championship,
and I'm sure they're thinking that it's not their last one."

It is a measure of how limitless the possibilities seem that
Bryant, who as a rookie four years ago brashly declared that the
Lakers would win 10 titles during his career, was asked during
the championship celebration whether he'd like to amend that
prediction...upward. He said he'd let his estimate stand.

"I'm greedy," O'Neal says. "I'm very greedy." That greed seems to
have been passed on to his teammates. The 15-1 postseason record
isn't only a pretty number for the record books, it's also an
indication that the Lakers never lost their appetite, even when
they had all but devoured the opposition. In each of their four
chances to close out a series, they eliminated the opponent with
the cold-blooded efficiency that only great teams consistently
muster. "If they're not a great team," Sixers forward George
Lynch said after Game 5, "then I don't want to run into one that
is."

It's no secret that the Lakers' chances of building a dynasty
rest on how long this era of good feeling between O'Neal and
Bryant lasts. Even in the postclincher giddiness it was hard to
find anyone in the Los Angeles locker room who felt sure the two
stars had resolved the differences between them, which had
fractured the team during most of the regular season. "Hopeful,
yes; certain, no," Fox said. "I think it helps that they've seen
once again how much we can accomplish when we're all on the same
page. But Shaq and Kobe are two strong-willed guys, and there are
no guarantees."

Even on the brink of the title, Bryant could muster little more
than cautious optimism. "If you look at the teams that have won
championships, a lot of them go through some adversity in the
regular season," he said the day before Game 5. "We came through
it this year even stronger than we were. So I don't see [tension
on the team] being a threat at all. But I'll let you know in
October." Bryant seemed to be only half joking when he said of
his partnership with O'Neal, "We're happy--until next January when
people start talking about trading one of us."

The Bryant-O'Neal rift may be a chronic condition, but it's one
that the Lakers can probably live with if it's monitored and
managed. Former team president Jerry West, the franchise's Obi
Wan Kenobi, will no doubt have more meetings with Bryant like the
one they had in March, when he invited Bryant and his agent, Arn
Tellem, to his home for a spaghetti dinner and wound up
counseling Kobe for four hours on how to adjust his game to work
more smoothly with O'Neal's. Similarly, Shaq is sure to have more
phone conversations with West like the ones they had this season,
in which West reminded him that because of Bryant's youth (he's
22) and still-evolving talents, playing with him would require
extra patience. It was telling that O'Neal and Bryant both
thanked West publicly during the championship celebration without
being asked about him. "He was a big part of the success we had
this year," O'Neal said. "A huge part."

The distance between Bryant and the rest of his teammates may
also threaten the Lakers' chemistry. Toward the end of last
season Bryant began to overcome his tendency to withdraw
socially, though some Lakers say he reverted to his old ways this
year, curling up with his headphones on team flights while other
players played cards or talked. Then on a flight during the
team's last road trip of the regular season, Bryant put down the
headphones and joined in. "It was a small thing," says guard
Brian Shaw, "but it meant a lot."

Bryant downplays the significance of that gesture. "I love these
guys," he says. "I don't think I've done anything different or
made any changes in the way I am. But if guys feel more
comfortable around me than they once did, that's great."

O'Neal and Bryant are as comfortable around each other as they
probably ever will be. Although they are not close friends, their
differences have always been more professional than personal,
each believing he should be the first option in the offense. They
sometimes try too hard to show that there's no animosity between
them, with displays of affection in front of the cameras that
feel forced, but they can be genuinely friendly in private
moments. Before an April game in Boston they were talking near
the locker room, behind a partially closed door, unaware that
anyone could see them. O'Neal leaned over, Bryant whispered
something in his ear, and they fell against each other, laughing.
"People think we hate each other," O'Neal says. "We don't hate
each other. If we did, we never could have done this two years in
a row."

It's possible that the Lakers' rocky regular season was humbling
enough to help them avoid falling into the same traps in the
future. "We thought we could take shortcuts because we were
better than everyone else," Fisher says. "I think that's where a
lot of the bickering came from. Kobe probably thought, Hey, I did
it Shaq's way last year and we won, so now let's see if we can
win my way. Then you had Shaq thinking, If Kobe's going to do it
his way and leave me out, then I'm not going to play into that
and help him. Phil and the rest of us were saying, What the hell
is going on? I thought we had this hashed out last year. I guess
we didn't appreciate what we had until we admitted to ourselves
that if we didn't get it together, we were going to lose our
championship and possibly our whole team."

Even if the Lakers have to relearn some of the same lessons every
season, they'll surely remember that it's not necessary for their
two leading men to be best friends in order to win. Late last
Friday night Bryant was still clutching the championship trophy
when he boarded the team bus back to the hotel. He walked down
the aisle past guard Ron Harper, who was puffing on a stogie,
past other teammates sipping beer and chatting on their cell
phones, without a word to any of them. He made his way to the
last row, where there were seats on only one side of the aisle,
then placed the trophy on the window seat and settled down next
to it, making it impossible for anyone to sit beside him. His cap
pulled low on his forehead, he stared out the window before
closing his eyes for a few seconds.

Moments later, O'Neal boarded the bus, still carrying his MVP
trophy. He walked to the back, jawing with teammates along the
way, and flopped into a seat one row in front of Bryant and
across the aisle. The two stars acknowledged each other with a
nod and a few words, then Bryant went back to looking out the
window on one side of the bus while O'Neal mugged for a camera
crew outside the other. The bus pulled away with Shaq and Kobe
facing in opposite directions and sharing very little, except the
spoils of victory.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER Together Again But where do Shaq and Kobe go from here?COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND MANNY MILLAN Arm's length relationship The Finals MVP, O'Neal repeatedly muscled in on the 76ers' Mutombo.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND MANNY MILLAN Triangulation The 76ers played tough team defense, but the Lakers swarmed to the task too, as Geiger found trying to split Bryant and Mark Madsen (right).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER, JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AND MANNY MILLAN Stairway to heaven Although Shaq was L.A.'s prime mover in the Finals, Bryant elevated his game when the need arose.
"We thought we could take shortcuts because we were better than
everyone else," Fisher says.
"People think we hate each other," O'Neal says of his
relationship with Bryant. "If we did, we never could have done
this two years in a row."