EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A championship era turned three Wednesday, the party awash in champagne and relief, the thick-throated singing heard from here to Los Angeles.
There were streamers; swooping Kobe Bryant, dangling Robert Horry.
There were candles; Derek Fisher flickering, Devean George burning.
There were party bags filled with most surprising oddities, including an emotional Jerry Buss and a sweating Mitch Richmond.
And there was, of course, the mandatory visit from a giant, Shaquille O'Neal, who carried the entire Laker party to a 113-107 victory over the New Jersey Nets and a four-game sweep of the NBA Finals.
After which, he hugged his tiny, sobbing grandfather.
"I've never been so happy in my life to see a boy grow up to be a man," said Donald Harrison.
Thus also describes this team, which won its third consecutive NBA championship by navigating upstream with a heavy, exhausting stroke that can best described as three-style.
From the flops to the feuds to the fourth quarter two seasons ago against Portland ... to history.
They are the first Los Angeles Laker team to win three titles in a row, the first Laker team to sweep a finals series, and the first Laker team to celebrate by singing ... a children's song?
In their sour-smelling locker room afterward, the champagne puddling in their eyes and on the floor, they draped their giant arms around each other and pulled themselves into a small circle and chanted.
"Red light ... green light ... red light ... green light.''
Explained Fisher: "That's the name of a children's game that we've talked about all year. We've used it to remind ourselves that it's like this team has been together since we were children. We've been through a lot."
Then, as if they didn't believe it themselves, they chanted another chant.
"One, two three ... one, two, three ... one, two, three."
Nobody said four, but, face it, that's what everybody was thinking. The party didn't feel like an ending, but a beginning. The players didn't talk about summer vacation, but summer toil.
"I'm sure Sacramento's working out right now," said Bryant, touching the gold championship ball with one hand while clenching his fist with the other. "They're going to try to take what we have. We're going to be waiting for them."
Like any good birthday song, the Lakers finished it with one thought.
... And many more ...
"At least two more," said Rick Fox in the middle of the locker room, adding, "Will somebody get me a bottle!"
While the first championship was more emotional, and the second championship was more overpowering, this third party came with the best guest list.
Thoughts of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were there.
By winning three consecutive titles, O'Neal has now done something that the greatest Laker centers have not.
The spirit of Pat Riley was also there.
With his 156th career playoff win, Phil Jackson surpasses Riley for the career postseason coaching record.
Looming in the background at Continental Airlines Arena, floating like a wisp of cigar smoke, was also Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics.
Next season, Jackson can surpass Auerbach with his 10th NBA championship. Next season, the Lakers can become only the second team besides the legendary Celtics to win four titles in a row.
But enough about next season. Wednesday was about a moment unto itself, a feeling that carried the Lakers to another fourth-quarter spin, the final spin, that left the Nets dizzy and lost.
One moment early in the fourth quarter, the Nets led by three points. Then Bryant calmly hit a three-pointer. Then Brian Shaw shrugged and threw in a jump shot. Then George smilingly hit another three-pointer.
While O'Neal carried the load throughout the last week, being named Finals most valuable player for a third consecutive time, in the end it was about the team.
The dirty little secret about these starry-skied Lakers is that they've always been about the team.
When the Nets pulled back to within one point in the final seven minutes? Horry stole the ball, Fisher hit a jumper, Bryant drew a charge ... you want to know anything else about this team?
Oh yeah, with 1:17 remaining, the Lakers showed something else, something extraordinary.
During a timeout, Jackson summoned Richmond. Fisher stepped behind him and gently shoved him into the game.
After fourteen seasons without a title, after an entire playoffs with only one appearance and none in these Finals, Richmond was going to finish the championship on the floor.
Fisher had bet Richmond before the game that he would play. O'Neal had urged the team to get the lead so Richmond could play.
Said Richmond: "I will cherish that forever."
Said Fisher: "When I pushed him I said, 'I told you so! Now give me my money!' "
It was such a night of togetherness that everybody seemed to contribute. Well, not quite everybody.
But don't worry.
For one guy, the end of a third championship season means only the start of another tradition.
Mark Madsen? Your turn.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*--* The Big 4-0 Sweeps in NBA Finals: 1959--Boston d. Minn. Lakers 1971--Milwaukee d. Baltimore 1975--Golden State d. Washington 1983--Philadelphia d. L.A. Lakers 1989--Detroit d. L.A Lakers 1995--Houston d. Orlando 2002--L.A. Lakers d. New Jersey