Sorry LeBron, but Kobe is King

Published 2:39 am Wednesday, June 4, 2008

By By JOHN NADEL, AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Jerry West has had a front-row seat to watch the evolution of Kobe Bryant: precocious teenager, three-time NBA champion, angry superstar and beloved MVP.
One of the game’s all-time greats himself, West can relate to some of what Bryant has experienced. And the man known as Mr. Clutch understands what separates Bryant from the rest.
Bryant was the ultimate closer last week when the Los Angeles Lakers beat San Antonio 100-92 to advance to their first NBA finals berth since 2004.
The Spurs scored five straight points to draw within two, prompting a Los Angeles timeout. Bryant then scored 10 of his 39 points in the final 3:32.
Bryant recalled some advice West once gave him.
West spent more than 40 years with the Lakers as a player, coach and executive. He knew when he watched the 17-year-old Bryant in a pre-draft workout in 1996 that he was in the presence of future greatness.
Bryant is now in the exclusive company of players who dominated their generations: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, West, Elgin Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
That’s a lesson Bryant has learned.
Bryant, who turns 30 in August, is completing his 12th season. He didn’t mix much with older teammates early in his career. Although he teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to lead the Lakers to three straight championships, the two feuded like crazy.
O’Neal was traded a month after the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA finals. Bryant still bristles at implications he had something to do with that.
The other day, as the Lakers prepared for the Boston Celtics in their first appearance in the finals since O’Neal left, Bryant said he was never unhappy in his role as the No. 2 option.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson also left after the 2003-04 season, and later wrote a book in which he called Bryant ‘‘uncoachable.’’ Jackson would return after taking a season off and seems to have had an excellent relationship with Bryant since.
When Bryant demanded to be traded last summer, Jackson served as an ally of sorts. When Bryant won his first MVP award last month, his coach said he didn’t know anybody who deserved it more. Jackson coached Jordan, a five-time MVP, in Chicago and was with the Lakers when O’Neal won the award in 2000.
Bryant has talked all season about his love for his teammates, and they’ve clearly returned the affection. It hasn’t always been that way — far from it.
The return of Derek Fisher this season clearly benefited Bryant on and off the court. The two were teammates with the Lakers from 1996-04 before Fisher left for three years.
West has watched the last year unfold from a distance.
The help came from several teammates, especially Andrew Bynum until the 20-year-old center was hit with a season-ending knee injury Jan. 13. The Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis less than three weeks later in what Bryant this week termed a ‘‘nice little donation.’’
Bryant has called this his best regular season and his most enjoyable. That’s a long 3-pointer from last spring when he challenged the Lakers to upgrade their roster, then demanded a trade. He has opened up recently about how tough last summer was.