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|Worth the wait: It may have taken 12 years in the NBA, but Kobe Bryant is finally MVP of the league.|
It seemed inevitable once his career took off a decade ago and he was clearly on his way to becoming the best player in the NBA. Yet it seemed impossible in October, when his days in Los Angeles looked numbered. You know the backstory that came before tonight's freeze-frame moment, when David Stern will hand over the Maurice Podoloff trophy at Staples Center. And you can't separate this triumphant time from the dark days that came last summer, when Bryant demanded he be traded.
You couldn't escape the incongruity when he was formally named the MVP on Tuesday, in a crowded hotel ballroom that included the teammates he'd disparaged, the owner he'd called an "idiot," the front office he'd deemed "a mess." There's only one way to explain the turnaround.
"It's Hollywood," Bryant said. "It's a movie script."
Maybe it's why these two sides belong together. A player who constantly creates drama couldn't play anywhere but on a team that seems to thrive on it.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has asked owner Jerry Buss about it before, wondering why there's near-constant turmoil around an organization that has enjoyed so much success.
"He says it's always seemed to be this way since he bought the team," Kupchak said. "Every year, or every other year, there seems to be something that occurred or caught the imagination of people and took off on its own. Whether or not that has to do with Hollywood, I don't know. But it seems it's always been this way."
Superstar Magic Johnson once asked out if they didn't change coaches, legendary executive Jerry West used to threaten to leave on a regular basis before he finally did in 2000, Shaquille O'Neal clashed with Bryant, then trashed the organization after he left.
|Life's a lot easier for Kobe in the game of basketball now that he's learned to trust his teammates.|
What's the essence of a compelling story? Conflict. The plotline can't be as simple as boy meets girl. At its most basic, the Kobe MVP screenplay should be a matter of a gifted athlete with an unsurpassed work ethic being rewarded. But it took the Shaq battle, a descent to the lottery, back-to-back playoff losses, and finally character evolution -- the metamorphosis of a single-minded scorer to a well-rounded player who incorporates his teammates -- for him to reach this point. All that, and age.
"When you're younger and you have the gift of the athleticism and all that, you use that instead of using your head, because you can dominate somebody," said Brian Shaw, Bryant's former teammate and current Laker assistant coach. "When you can't physically do those things, now you have to start playing with your head, you have to start using angles and position and all those things."
A good example of the way Bryant has changed came in the Lakers' victory over Utah in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. Bryant dribbled and dribbled. The ball was knocked away, he retrieved it, dribbled some more, went down to the baseline and went up for a shot as he's done countless times before. But this time, at the last second, he passed to Pau Gasol for an easy layup. After all those years of early-morning weightlifting or extra laps around the track, Bryant realizes it's best to be in a position to do less work, that life's a lot easier when you don't try to score every basket yourself but allow your teammates to do what they can.
Really, the heroes of this story are the players who showed they were worthy of Bryant's passes and the general manager who stoically kept doing his job. Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and the Laker supporting cast worked so hard to improve that they forced Bryant to buy into the team and to reconsider his opinion of the job Kupchak had done assembling the roster.
"We have to give a lot of credit to Mitch Kupchak," Bryant said. "He made an incredible trade [for Gasol] he drafted extremely well and helped put us in position to contend for this championship."
There aren't too many original tales left to tell, and at times this postseason the Laker story has reminded me of "The Wizard of Oz." The lesson was that the heart, courage and brains the team sought were there all along, and Kobe/Dorothy discovered in the end there's no place like home.
"I'm very proud to represent this organization, to represent this city," Bryant said.
The everyone-lived-happily-ever-after ending?
Not so fast. Shaw spoke of Bryant's ultracompetitive nature, how it's the essence of what makes him great and beloved, yet also disliked. He wants to win so badly, Shaw said. "If we don't make it to the Finals and win the championship," he continued, "it's possible that what went on last offseason and this preseason could happen again."
As with any successful Hollywood movie, there's always the potential for a sequel.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.