ORLANDO, Fla. - Kobe Bryant has the NBA title he needed most -- the one without Shaq.
Bryant's seven-year chase of a coveted championship is over. He's got his fourth, and Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson his record 10th, a ring for each finger. One year after failing in the finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate ShaquilleO'Neal's enormous shadow -- at last. His fourth championship secured a strong case can bemade for Bryant being the league's best player since Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers.
His coach stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bow-legged Zen Master who won six league titles in the 1990s withJordan in Chicago, now has won No. 4 with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Bostoncoach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in finals history.
"I'll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red," Jackson said. "He was a great guy." Bryant andJackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are againat the top of their games.
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the postseason scowling, snarling, baring histeeth and all but breathing fire at anything in his path. For weeks, the All-Star has worn hisgame face, and only when the victory was his in the final seconds did the finals MVP allowhimself to smile.
After the final horn, he leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates, whobounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Bryant then gave a long, heartfelt hug and shared afew words with Jackson before sweeping up his daughters, both wearing gold Lakers dresses,into his arms.
Bryant had come up short twice in the finals before, in 2004 with O'Neal against Detroit, andagain last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league's best rivalry. The Lakers werebeaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryantand his teammates had trouble shaking.
They went to training camp with one goal in mind. This was going to be their season, andexcept for a few minor missteps, it was.
"It's so tough to win championships," Bryant said. "We started over from scratch. Here we areagain. This really feels like a dream." After beating Utah in the first round, Los Angeles wasforced to go seven games against Houston, which lost center Yao Ming to an injury. The Lakersthen took care of Denver in six games, setting up a matchup with the shoot-from-their-hipsMagic, who made their first visit to the finals since O'Neal took them there in 1995.
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had twoovertime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie CourtneyLee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howardclanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail agame-tying 3-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic's super hero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points,took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, butwas only 3 of 12 on 3s for Orlando, which after living on the 3, finally died by it.
The Magic went just 8 of 27 from long range.
Orlando was trying to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals. They hadrallied to knock off Philadelphia and Boston, and then upset LeBron James and Cleveland in theconference finals. The Magic always felt they had a shot at history.
Bryant, though, wouldn't be denied his place.
As teammates, Bryant and O'Neal were nearly unbeatable on the court. Off it, there wereproblems.
The pair won three straight titles together from 2000-02, but the Bryant-O'Neal dynastybecame dysfunctional as both fought for control with Jackson publicly siding with his All-Starcenter. It all eventually crumbled in 2004 when O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.
Bryant was blamed for the breakup, and as the years passed, his many critics said he couldn'twin one by himself. He couldn't, but the addition of Gasol, who came over in a stunning tradefrom Memphis last season, filled O'Neal's massive void at center and gave Bryant help.
Fisher, who has four rings himself, came back to L.A. after stints in Golden State and Utah andbecame a steadying force. If not for his two key 3-pointers in Game 4, this series would still begoing.
The Lakers were anything but The Kobe Show.