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J.A. Adande

Looking Back to Go Forward

May 16, 2003|J.A. Adande

It was the night of June 19, 2000, some 90 minutes after Kobe Bryant leaped into Shaquille O'Neal's arms at the conclusion of their NBA Finals victory over the Indiana Pacers and their first championship together.

They had addressed the Staples Center crowd, spoken to the media and then they walked into the Los Angeles Kings' training room at Staples Center, where longtime NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein fired off five or six quick shots of the duo together

A print now hangs in the Lakers' training room, one of several framed memories of Laker glory on the walls in the team's inner sanctum.

Bryant found himself staring at the three-year-old photograph as he tried to comprehend what happened Thursday night, when the Spurs halted the Lakers' string of championships at three with a 110-82 pasting in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.

O'Neal is on the right side of the picture, holding his NBA Finals most valuable player trophy in his left hand, with his right hand held out as if to say, "Ta-dah!"

Bryant is on the left side, a white championship cap sitting askew on his head. His left arm is draped around O'Neal's shoulder and he's holding the Larry O'Brien championship trophy in his right hand.

"It was our first trophy," he said, as wistfully as if it were a picture of his baby's first steps.

"I was looking at it and I just had to smile, because it's amazing how fast time flies. The image is right there, frozen in time. I was 21, he was 28. Now he's 31, I'm going to be 25 and we have three championships."

"But it made me realize how much you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have, because careers go by so fast. I mean, I remember that picture like it was yesterday. [Thursday] was the first time I had a chance to reflect on what we accomplished."

It was time to reflect because it was over.

Some moments started to blur together over the course of 47 more playoff games in the next three years, but the photo took it back to the start -- while wondering if this might be the end. In 2000, it felt like it could go on forever. Now the duo could split as soon as next year if Bryant decides to exercise the opt-out in his contract.

Meanwhile the rest of the league -- especially the Spurs -- caught up to the Lakers, then ran away from them in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's game.

"I think every year you try to repeat," Bryant said. "But what you have to understand is that teams reload and they restock and they try to dethrone you. They reloaded with the right ammo, with what they needed to battle."

It was better than the Lakers' two big guns. I had picked the Lakers to win another championship only because I couldn't see any team beating Shaq and Kobe four out of seven games. Well, the Spurs beat them four out of six -- and six out of eight if you include the two regular-season games in which O'Neal played.

Bernstein will need a wider lens for the next picture, because it must include more players.

"We can get some extra rest now, regroup, get some free agents, get some new guys, get some new blood and hopefully start a new run next year," O'Neal said.

Over the course of this six-game series, O'Neal and Bryant couldn't keep up with Tim Duncan and the inconsistent Tony Parker because they didn't have enough help.

A three-point basket (one in particular) from Robert Horry would have been nice. Or someone who might keep Parker or Speedy Claxton out of the lane or perhaps someone to keep Manu Ginobili from crashing the offensive boards.

Without the help, even a breakthrough season by Bryant, who averaged a career-high 30 points, couldn't make up for a less-than 100% O'Neal.

O'Neal missed the first 12 games while recovering from surgery on his toe, and missed three more games in February with a sore knee. Knee problems flared up again in this series.

"I think a lot of things caught up," O'Neal said. "Injuries, playing hard. We kind of struggled to win 50 games. We let a lot of those games slip away. We would have possibly had fourth place. We were a totally different team this year. It finally caught up with us.

"This is something that's going to hurt. It's reality, it's life. You have to suck it up and move on. The good thing about American sports is, there always is a next year. If David Stern would have come out at the beginning of the year and said this is the last year of the NBA, I would be very, very upset. But ... "

He didn't seem as angry or bitter as he was when the Spurs swept the Lakers four years ago.

Bryant had trouble getting through a television interview immediately after the Game Thursday, and took a while to compose his thoughts later.

Bernstein, the photographer, said there have been only two times when he couldn't bring himself to push the shutter button, two times when the pain seemed to much and too private to invade.

The first was after the 1989 NBA Finals when the Lakers were swept by the Detroit Pistons. The quickest way between the two locker rooms was through the showers, and on his way back and forth he saw Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper sitting on the floor, heads slumped, the water pouring down on them.

And the second time was Thursday night, when Bryant sat by himself in the trainer's room.

"It's just tough to lose," Bryant said. "We haven't experienced this feeling in three seasons."

There will be no pictures to commemorate May 15, 2003. Only painful memories.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com

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