LOS ANGELES – In the furthest reaches of Kobe Bryant's(notes) mind, in its darkest, most desperate corner, the personal admonition pulsates. Don't bleep it up, he always tells himself. Don't bleep it up.
Everyone had come to Game 7 to commemorate Bryant's ascension – one title closer to Magic and Michael, one step closer to basketball's Mt. Rushmore. Only, something had gone awry. He felt like he had been trapped in the kind of nightmare that would awaken him in a cold sweat, the kind that could never happen to him here.
"The more I tried to push," Bryant said, "the more it kept getting away from me."
After some bad shots and bad misses, Bryant had dissolved into a younger, far more cynical version of himself. He tried to do too much, digging himself deeper and deeper. When Bryant had wanted the magnitude of the moment to elevate him, it did the damndest thing for a long, long time: brought him to his knees.
"Pass the ball!" Phil Jackson barked in the Lakers huddles. "We've got to pass the ball."
As the Celtics constructed a bigger and bigger lead, Bryant looked like a Vegas gambler trying to double down on his losses – only to lose again and again. The way Game 7 was going – the way that Bryant threatened to shoot these Lakers out of it – this magnificent playoff run threatened to end with a stain on him. Oh how Bryant would've been crucified for letting this championship slip away, letting these Celtics storm into the Staples Center and beat him twice in three years. Yes, Kobe was bleeping this up, and he would've never, ever been able to get over this one.
Fifteen of his 20 shots had clanged off the rim before the start of the fourth quarter, and it was here that Derek Fisher(notes) grabbed him in the huddle. Here, Bryant realized there was a championship on the line – the death-grip that these Lakers and Celtics were locked in couldn't survive his stubbornness, his hubris. Bryant had to accept that his shot was broken, that a storybook finish to his fifth title had been obliterated, and that he had to find a way to take Game 7 in a most unglamorous, unaesthetic way.
The Lakers were down four points on the way into the fourth quarter, and Fisher let loose on the Lakers sideline. "We've got 12 minutes to put it back together," and that was as much about Bryant as anyone else. The Lakers no longer needed Bryant to be a superstar, but a grunt in the trenches against these relentless, proud Celtics. The Celtics had done everything needed to get themselves into position to hang around and ultimately steal the championship. Boston's defense had made life miserable for Bryant in these two NBA Finals, and Bryant will be glad to never see them again come June.
Derek Fisher knows Bryant the best, and he's the Laker who can talk to him. He listens. He could see Bryant playing too fast, too eager, too desperate. "He was seeing things that he wanted to do, but it was like he was a step-and-a-half too quick to get there," Fisher noticed. "He's so good at footwork and setting guys up and getting guys leaning one way and spinning out and going the other way. He was going too fast before the guys could even go for the move.
"He just had to slow himself down."
Bryant stopped shooting contested shots and let the Lakers begin to breathe on offense. He started grabbing rebounds and getting to the free-throw line. This game had been a pure tractor pull, the most beautiful ugly game you'll ever witness. Bryant stopped shooting that pretty jumper and started bulling his way to the rim. Fisher caught the Celtics with a 3-pointer to make it 64-64 with a little more than six minutes left, and finally Bryant made a deliberate, sure move on Ray Allen(notes) at the free-throw line. Kobe caught Allen with a crossover dribble, let Allen lunge left as he dribbled right, rose up and hit his only shot of the final quarter. It pushed the Lakers to a 68-64 lead. Despite the Celtics coming and coming, and coming, Los Angeles never trailed again. Bryant shot nine free throws in the fourth quarter and eight dropped into the basket.
"I'm just glad my teammates got us back in the game," Bryant said later. "And I was thankful that I was able to make one damn shot at the end and make some free throws."
Finally, they picked him up. These Lakers had come into Bryant's life when he needed them so badly, when his post-Shaq life had been filled with such frustration. As hard as he's been on this team, as relentlessly as he rides them, they'll always know they bailed out Bryant in Game 7. Bryant had done it for them over and over again. Now they were there for him.
Eventually in Game 7, Bryant had to start trusting his teammates. He had no choice. Bryant had harbored as little faith in Artest as any of his teammates, but he finally understood that Artest had become an improbable offensive salvation on a night the Lakers shot 32 percent and still won an NBA championship.
"Late in the second half, he started to move the ball and attack and pass," Artest said. "He trusted us … and he passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball. …You can hear him in your head, 'Ron, don't shoot …don't shoot."
The way that Artest hears Bryant's voice, Bryant still heard his own. On the eve of the NBA Finals, he had talked privately about how precious these opportunities are, about how he's always telling himself don't bleep this up. He would miss 18 of 24 shots, but get to the line 15 times and splice together 23 points and 15 rebounds. "When you don't have your game and you find a way, that's a champion," his father Joe would say outside the locker room later.
Eventually, Kobe found his father for an embrace and simply said to him, "I got one for the thumb." And he did. His fifth title was the hardest, and it represented a distancing of his Lakers past – even on a night when it felt like Bryant was teetering on falling into old traps.
"Just got one more than Shaq," he sniffed. "You can take that to the bank. I don't forget anything."
Especially not the slights – real or imagined. Yes, Shaquille O'Neal(notes) stays on four rings and Bryant advances to his fifth. He still holds such disdain for Shaq and will never forgive him for what he considered years of mistreatment and disrespect. Now Bryant's rounding third and heading for home on Michael Jordan and his six championships, and that inspires such a reverence out of him.
"It's tough for me to really put that into any kind of context, because 90 percent of what I've learned and what I've figured out comes from him," Bryant said. "This is not a situation where it's a me-and-Shaq rivalry kind of thing. It's a genuine love that I have for him and what he's done for me."
When everything had gone wrong for him on Thursday night, when it felt like he was letting Game 7 slip away, the lessons of Jordan drove Bryant. There would be no dominance out of him, no greatness – just a flawed star trying to grind through the nightmare of his championship life. "I had to do something," Bryant said, and eventually that became the work of a rebounder, an unglamorous duty for the most glamorous Hollywood basketball star since Magic Johnson.
"Sometimes shots aren't going to fall," Bryant said, "but you've got to figure out something to help your team win, and nobody was better than that than M.J."
When it was finished, the Lakers surrounded Kobe Bryant, and he lifted that MVP trophy toward the rafters where they'll soon hang a 16th championship banner. He had never fought so hard for something in basketball, never felt so dazed staggering across the finish line. This had been the season when LeBron James(notes) was going to take his standing as the best player on the planet, when his body was supposedly too beat up, too old, to burden the brunt of a championship chase. Now, the Celtics were finally slain. The confetti fell, and on Bryant's face, there appeared to be equal parts relief and joy.
Somewhere in Bryant's thoughts, where he still tried to process it all late Thursday, you just had to know the words that flickered within that relentlessly, tortured mind. Beyond the brink of his worst Game 7 nightmare, beyond a basketball game that would've haunted him forever, you just knew that Kobe Bean Bryant was so grateful that he didn't bleep this one up.
- Kobe Bryant