- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Kobe Bryant was positively giddy.

The Los Angeles Lakers star and his teammates, resplendent in caps and T-shirts honoring their Western Conference championship, were celebrating on the Staples Center floor as Jerry West spoke to the crowd.

The 70-year-old West, known as Mr. Clutch during a Hall of Fame career with the Lakers, presented his former team with the conference championship trophy following its 100-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.

“I’ve seen a lot of great players in my life, but you people in L.A. are very privileged to see this young man here, Kobe Bryant. He’s something special,” West said.

“A dream come true, the answer to a prayer,” a beaming Bryant would tell the fans a few minutes later.

West was the Lakers’ general manager 12 years ago when he pulled off a deal even greater than the Pau Gasol heist, acquiring Bryant from Charlotte for center Vlade Divac a couple of weeks after the NBA Draft. Divac was expendable because the Lakers were about to sign free agent Shaquille O’Neal.

Bryant, the 13th pick in the draft, had just graduated from Lower Merion High outside Philadelphia and needed a mentor as he headed to Los Angeles. West was perfect for the job.

The two have been close ever since, even after West left the Lakers following the 1999-2000 season, so the heartfelt embrace they shared following Thursday night’s ceremony was sincere.

The Lakers earned their first NBA Finals berth since 2004 exactly one year after Bryant called the team’s front office “a mess” on a local radio show. He demanded a trade the following day on a national show, ultimately saying he would prefer to play on Pluto than return to Los Angeles.

A few weeks earlier, Bryant implored the team to call on West to help general manager Mitch Kupchak improve the roster.

How things have changed.

“Mitch has done a terrific job,” Bryant said Thursday night. “He has made some key trades, obviously the Pau one [four months ago], which when I talk to other people around the league and I say it was a great trade, they look at me and laugh and they don’t want to call it a trade. They want to call it … a donation or something like that.”

After Bryant demanded to be traded, the situation calmed down until Lakers owner Jerry Buss told reporters during training camp in October he was listening to offers for Bryant, angering the superstar again and prompting him to leave the team for a couple of days.

Bryant heard some boos at Staples Center before the Lakers’ season-opening 95-93 loss to Houston, but now all he hears from the home crowd are cheers and chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P.”

Bryant scored 10 of his 39 points in the final 3:32 of the Lakers’ series-clinching victory over the Spurs. They rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit to win the opener and a 17-point second-quarter deficit to win the fifth and final game.

So now the Lakers are getting a week off before opening the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“We all share in this,” Bryant said. “It is not me at the forefront. That’s just not how we roll.”

The Lakers have rolled their way into the NBA Finals for the 23rd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1961 and the 29th time overall. They have won 14 championships - nine in Los Angeles and five in Minneapolis.

“I think it is really a victorious point in time,” said Jackson, whose team has a 12-3 record this year in the playoffs, including 8-0 at Staples Center. “Never a dull moment with these boys.”

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