BOSTON – Tuesday night bled into Wednesday morning, and, still, there was no sight of Kobe Bryant. The rest of the Los Angeles Lakers long since had collected their egos and cleared out of the locker room. For nearly an hour, their captain had ensconced himself in a back room with a few team officials as company. Just outside Bryant's door, the Boston Celtics whooped and celebrated their champagne-soaked championship.
"Yes sir, 17!" Paul Pierce shouted to anyone who would listen. "Might get another one, too!"
One by one the Celtics bounded down the hallway. Sam Cassell yelled for his son. Championship cap pulled low over his eyes, smile stretched across his face, Ray Allen jogged into Boston's locker room. Big Baby shimmied in front of the TV cameras. Bryant could hear them all.
Finally, the door opened. A Lakers official ducked her head out of the room and saw Kevin Garnett approaching. Not until Garnett passed did Bryant emerge. Neither man noticed the other, two champions, one past, one present, crossing in the night.
Bryant had been on the other side of the hallway before. He knew what KG and Pierce and all those other Celtics were feeling, and that's why he burned. After all, wasn't this supposed to be his season, his time?
"I don't think anything that happened this year will mean a lot to him or put a smile on his face because of the end result," said Derek Fisher, Bryant's longtime teammate. "… Knowing him the way I know him, he'd give back his MVP trophy now if it meant we still had an opportunity to play for a championship and win it. That's how much winning means to him."
Bryant said as much when he reached the podium. He was proud of his teammates. He was proud of the Lakers' unexpected success this season. But …
"The goal," Bryant said, "was to win a championship. It wasn't to win MVP or anything like that. It was to win a championship.
"From that aspect, we failed."
The Lakers still have a bright future, if for no other reason than they still have Andrew Bynum coming to them. Had any runner-up ever left the Finals knowing one of the league's best young centers will soon be delivered to its doorstep? The Lakers missed Bynum in this series more than they've missed him all season. His rebounding and shot-blocking, Bryant admitted, "solves a couple" of the Lakers' problems. With Bynum starting, Pau Gasol can move to power forward, where he is less apt to be physically overmatched. Lamar Odom can then move to … Ohio?
Bryant knows Bynum can't fix everything. The way this series played out, the way it embarrassingly ended, with the Celtics hammering down dunks and burying one three-pointer after another until the closing seconds of the 39-point verdict, left the Lakers unsettled. In the end, with their season on the line, they showed no fight.
After surrendering a 24-point lead in one loss, then coughing up 19- and 14-point advantages in another game they barely won, the Lakers proved to be as soft as they were talented. No six-game series ever has seemed so one-sided.
"All of us are going to have to go home, watch this tape together, watch our ass get kicked together and focus on November," Odom said. "See how much it hurts, see how bad it looks, so it will never happen again."
Or as Lakers coach Phil Jackson said: "We have to get some players, if we're going to come back and repeat, to have that kind of aggressiveness we need."
"Some players" means Odom and Gasol. The problem, of course, is that what Odom and Gasol looked like in this series very well may be who they are: talented, yet emotionally fragile, front-runners.
Odom can be maddeningly inconsistent, running hot and cold from game to game and disappearing when the Lakers need him most. In 40 minutes Tuesday, he made just two shots.
Gasol, meanwhile, was bulled over by Garnett early in the game and remained passive throughout. This won't surprise anyone in Memphis. Gasol had pined for a trade to a winning franchise, and when the Grizzlies finally delivered him to one? He privately fretted to a teammate about the pressure that would come with playing for the Lakers.
"He's terrified," another person close to Gasol said on the day of the trade.
Gasol is only 27, and he still has time to mature. Maybe he learns from this. Said Bryant: "I think once you go through your ups and downs and struggle a little bit, taste defeat…that makes you a little tougher."
Still, Gasol and Odom have gorged on defeat throughout their careers, and they haven't toughened yet. That's why the Lakers would benefit from adding another battle-tested veteran to their roster. They stared at one candidate in this series: When James Posey wasn't dropping in three-pointers over the Lakers' heads, he clung to Bryant's hip.
With Posey and others herding him into a crowd of Celtics whenever he tried to drive, Bryant shot barely 40 percent in the series, and that's why the Lakers' supporting cast shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame. Dirk Nowitzki put up similar numbers in the 2006 Finals, and he returned home to find the locals waiting with torches.
Bryant? He chose to simmer into the morning behind a closed door. He later spoke optimistically about next season, about Bynum's promise, about how well his young teammates had come together. Deep down, however, he also knew something else.
"This isn't guaranteed to anybody," Bryant said. "There's people who have gotten here and never gotten back."
Bryant answered a few more questions before pushing himself away from the podium. He walked off the stage, and a handful of security officials shepherded him to the Garden's loading dock.
The Lakers' bus had been idling for nearly an hour. Bryant climbed aboard and the door shut. As the police escort guided them into the morning chill, not even Kobe Bryant could guarantee where he and his teammates were headed.