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Suddenly, Bryant's at a New Level

Lakers Can Add a Seventh Tapestry to the Wall at Staples Center and Claim Their First NBA Championship Since 1988 With Victory Over the Pacers


INDIANAPOLIS — The Kobe Bryant supernova hit the NBA finals, at full force, Wednesday, leaving everyone else shuddering in the aftermath, and sifting through the outer limits of the basketball cosmos.

How long will he burn, how bright the blast, and how many opponents will be consumed by the flame?

"I can feel it kind of blossoming," said Bryant's high school coach, Gregg Downer. "I mean, in the next eight to 10 years, we're looking at four or five titles.

"I think Kobe would expect that. That's not going to surprise me if that happens, to make a [Michael] Jordan-like run."

Because, though he is still only 21, the Bryant Age started in the overtime of the Lakers' monumental Game 4 victory over the Indiana Pacers, and it is only beginning.

Because, in contrast to many moments of his first three-plus brilliant but unsettled Laker seasons, it was not accomplished separate from his teammates, but as a powerful piece of the total unit, now only one victory from a title.

"It was awesome," Indiana Coach Larry Bird, no stranger to epic efforts, said of Bryant's one-man Game 4 aria. "We were there, but we really weren't there on defense. I thought we got a hand up. He isolated us; he got the ball where he wanted to get it.

"Every shot was, you know, all net. I mean, it wasn't even close."

Said Shaquille O'Neal, who recalled Bryant's three airballs at the finish of the Lakers' series-ending Western Conference loss to Utah in 1997: "I went up to him, I said, 'You know what, remember this, see all these people laughing at you. Just remember, maybe one day we'll get to the big dance. Just remember it.'

"He's come a long way, and he's done a great job this year. I was very impressed with what he did last night, especially when I got fouled out and he winked and said, 'Don't worry about it. I got you.' "

Bryant, still hobbling on a sore left ankle that forced him to sit out Game 3, scored 28 points in Game 4, and most importantly timed his most explosive moments for when the Lakers needed him most--in overtime, after O'Neal had fouled out and the Pacers had kept charging.

O'Neal was the league's most dominant player, a near-unanimous most valuable player, and almost certainly will win the NBA finals MVP vote when and if the Lakers finish off the Pacers, either tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse or later.

But think of it: Bryant, seven years younger than O'Neal, is only getting better, more complete as a player and hungrier.

He won Game 2 against Phoenix in the second round on a buzzer-beating jumper. He carried the Lakers in several games in the grueling Portland series, including a towering across-the-statistical-sheet achievement in Game 7.

"The best thing about Kobe Bryant is he's going to be known as Kobe Bryant," veteran center John Salley said when asked if we are seeing the next Jordan. "He made that very clear against Portland and he made that very clear last night.

"A star is born. And he's the next one."

"We saw a little more of Kobe Bryant."

The most shocking thing to many Laker observers isn't that Bryant elevated his game when Conseco Fieldhouse rocked and the Lakers most desperately needed him--he has done that many times in his career.

No, the most shocking thing is that his teammates--who, before this season, felt disconnected from Bryant, and often were angered by what they considered self-centered play--encouraged him to take over, and felt confident that, once he lifted himself up, he would not leave the rest of them behind.

Bryant, they say, figured out some time during this, his fourth NBA season, that the more he reached out to his teammates, the better they would all perform in the times of greatest peril.

"He's grown into being Kobe," forward Rick Fox said. "I think he was still working on Kobe in a lot of ways . . .

"As a young man, he's had little time to mature outside of the game. Because the game has surrounded him in so many facets, on the court, off the court, all the attention that's been focused on him is all about basketball.

"For him, finding out what it's like to be a young man and have a life outside of the game, with his teammates, with his family, now with his fiancee . . . it's a lot to swallow.

"And he's finally chewed it up a little bit and relaxed a lot more and he's made himself a lot better person and player."

Though Bryant still does not socialize often with his teammates, he made an effort to include them in some of his activities, including inviting O'Neal and several others to his 21st birthday party last August, and surprisingly showing up--with his future fiancee--at O'Neal's 28th birthday part in March.

This wasn't the quiet teenage phenom who stayed away from any friendships. This was a maturing NBA star, still a little sheltered, but happily branching out.

"I think he realized how much his teammates cared about him and realized how much of his life outside of basketball we knew nothing about and weren't able to really help him in the pressure situations," Fox said.

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