In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant formed perhaps the NBA’s most talented duo ever, and together they won three straight world championships.
But their chemistry was tenuous, and when O’Neal demanded and was granted a trade in 2004, everyone and their mother blamed Bryant.
The Los Angeles Lakers were certifiably mediocre for the next three seasons, and it looked like he would never win another ring.
But that all changed when Pau Gasol joined the team in February 2008.
Suddenly, the team’s dynasty, not to mention Bryant’s legacy, got resurrected. The Lakers lost in the NBA Finals that year to the Boston Celtics in embarrassing fashion, but the future was bright for them.
The Black Mamba was determined to silence his haters, and he drove his team to a 65-17 regular season record and a return trip to the championship series in 2009 versus the Orlando magic.
After some Game 4 heroics by Derek Fisher, L.A. took a 3-1 series lead into Game 5.
The Magic showed fight early in the contest, but the Lakers took over in the second quarter. They tightened up their defense, which led to transition opportunities and a 56-46 halftime lead.
At some point in the third period, as L.A. increased its lead, it became obvious that the game had been decided. All that was left was for the Lakers and their fans to wait for the clock to show triple zeroes.
With a 99-86 victory, they had returned to the basketball mountaintop, and they had done so without a certain 7-foot-1, nearly 400-pound big fella.
Bryant posted 30 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and four blocked shots, and he averaged 32.4 points, 5.6 boards, 7.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks a game for the series.
It led to him earning Finals MVP honors, which was the only significant individual honor he hadn’t won yet.
But as it turned out, he and his team were just getting started.