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Rivalry Royale

Laker-King series had it all--bad food, bad officiating, clutch shots and a classic Game 7


True greatness is not achieved in solitude.

Would Muhammad Ali enjoy such an exalted status without Joe Frazier or George Foreman in the ring to provide his defining tests? Wasn't getting to the moon before the Soviets just as important as landing there at all?

During the Western Conference finals, the Lakers discovered their worthy adversary. Everything developed quickly in this series, like time-lapse photography. And by the end the Lakers had a rival not just for now, but the future as well.

Along the way we saw the formation of a star in Mike Bibby. We saw another chapter in the tragic hero odyssey of Chris Webber, while the happy-go-lucky career of Robert Horry reached a zenith.

There were sinister motives assigned to everything from the sound of an official's whistle to a tray of food.

As is always the case, the central Laker figures were Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson.

But when it mattered most--just as it always seemed to be with Jackson's Chicago Bull teams--the supporting cast ascended to heights worthy of the stars.

It was complete, as thoroughly satisfying a series as one could be.

And it was stylish as well. Like the neo-soul singers rescuing R&B from uninspired music, this series was part of the NBA's emergence from the drudgery that bogged it down during the 1990s.

The winning team scored at least 100 points in five of the seven games. Neither team scored fewer than 90 points in any of the games.

Unfortunately, this series will always be known for its wildly inconsistent officiating. In Game 1, Bryant's elbow caught Sacramento guard Doug Christie in the nose as Bryant turned and swung the ball. Christie was called for a foul, the most ridiculous of all of the 25 fouls on the Kings, versus 20 called on the Lakers.

In Game 2, O'Neal was cruising toward a potential 50-point night until he picked up his third foul with 4:49 left in the half, and afterward he all but said the referees had cheated the Lakers.

In Game 4, the Kings had the most legitimate complaint of all. An unlikely three-pointer by Samaki Walker just before halftime proved to be essential to the Lakers' one-point victory. But replays showed Walker had shot after the buzzer. NBA officials watching a frame-by-frame review later determined the shot was seven-hundredths of a second too late--a fitting margin for the closeness of this series.

The Lakers fumed after Game 5, when Sacramento shot 33 free throws and O'Neal shot only one before fouling out.

Game 6 inspired a national debate on the state of NBA officiating. The Lakers, playing at home, shot 40 free throws--27 in the fourth quarter--whereas the Kings shot only 25 free throws. The Lakers converted an unusually high 85% of their free throws, crucial points in a 106-102 victory.

Sacramento Coach Rick Adelman couldn't let it go. Even after Game 7 he was still lamenting the calls in Game 6. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader joined the protest, sending a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

But that lingering sense of bitterness will only serve to make the rivalry better in the future. Because the only thing worse than watching a team you hate get what you want is watching a team you hate get what you feel is rightfully yours.

Few observers outside Sacramento thought the Kings could win the series before it started.

Game 1 seemed to confirm that school of thought. The Lakers jumped to a 36-22 lead in the first quarter, playing their most complete 12-minute stretch of the playoffs. They coasted to a 106-99 victory and they appeared to have the Kings in their pockets.

Perhaps the Lakers just owned this team. They proved once again that Arco Arena, the loudest venue in the NBA, didn't affect them. They continued a mastery of the Kings that included three victories in four games during the regular season, plus six consecutive victories in playoff games over three years.

Some believe the series turned during the day off, when Bryant looked at the Sacramento Hyatt's room service menu and selected the bacon cheeseburger and a slice of cheesecake.

Bryant became violently ill, apparently the result of food poisoning. One of the most memorable lines of the series was uttered by Laker trainer Gary Vitti, describing Bryant when Vitti arrived in his room: "He was doubled over like a shrimp."

The Lakers and their fans wondered if it was merely coincidence that the only reported problem among the 1,200 meals the hotel served that day affected a Laker star.

Bryant was well enough to play 40 minutes for the Lakers, but he made only nine of 21 shots and his 22 points weren't enough to counterattack a Sacramento squad that produced 96.

Still, the Lakers had little reason to seem concerned. Their Game 1 victory had snatched the home-court advantage that Sacramento had worked all season to get. They had shown they could stay within reach of the Kings even on a slow night. And Bryant would have three days to recover.

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