- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

In the last few days, Shaquille O'Neal has taken to calling Kobe Bryant "my idol" and the "best player in the world."

Bryant merits the praise, and nothing against Allen Iverson, who was selected the NBA's MVP last week.

Without Iverson, the 76ers are a 25-win team, if that, their appearance in the Eastern Conference finals the work of one person, two if you count coach Larry Brown. Other than Iverson and Aaron McKie, the 76ers are so flawed it sometimes hurts to watch.

Dikembe Mutombo takes a half-hour to shoot a hook shot, Tyrone Hill is a limited role player, Eric Snow can't hit an open 15-footer and Todd MacCulloch appears perpetually asleep. If it matters, George Lynch and Matt Geiger are injured.

Could Bryant have led this ball and chain to the Eastern Conference finals? I think so. I think he is seven inches taller than Iverson. I think he is a purer shooter than Iverson. I think he grabbed 16 rebounds in Game 4 against the Kings.

Iverson may be the NBA's MVP, but Bryant is the NBA's best player, and really, it is not even close. Bryant does it all on the basketball floor. He rebounds, defends and can get any shot he wants. He is an excellent ball-handler and has improved his court vision. He can go left, right, wherever he likes. He can post you up or take you outside. He also has learned to be patient and play under control.

Bryant buried the Spurs in Game 2 with a 3-pointer. He buried the Spurs in Game 1 with his forays to the basket. His pull-up jumper from 15-18 feet is sweet, too.

The Lakers, largely because of Bryant's emergence, are treating their playoff opponents as if they were lottery teams. The Lakers are 9-0 in the playoffs, threatening to pull off the unthinkable. No team ever has gone undefeated in the playoffs, not in 54 previous seasons.

These Lakers are worthy successors to the special Lakers and Celtics teams of the '80s. They are not as deep as those teams, but in O'Neal and Bryant, they have two players who might have been as indefensible and dominant then as they are today. You can't make the same claim about the champions since the '80s: the Bad Boy Pistons, the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets and the asterisk-carrying Spurs.

Bryant has embraced the comparison to Jordan, right down to seemingly mimicking some of Jordan's mannerisms, which probably reflects his youth. Hard as it is to believe, Bryant is only 22 years old, and because he entered the NBA after high school and has O'Neal as a teammate instead of Dave Corzine, he is ahead of Jordan at the same stage of development. Jordan and the Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in his first three seasons.

Not that Jordan was out of his element in those years. He dumped a playoff-record 63 points on the championship-bound Celtics in 1986, and still the Bulls lost Game 2 in double overtime 135-131.

As long as Bryant stays healthy, he seems poised to dominate the NBA the next 10-12 years and make the comparisons to Jordan seem trite. Circumstances in part dictate how athletes are perceived, and it has been Bryant's good fortune to be where he is, in Los Angeles with the right teammates and the right coach.

It is easy to forget that he was selected by the Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft before being traded to the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac. As the years pass, that trade has the potential to become part of the NBA's rich lore of wrong-headed moves, not unlike the Trail Blazers passing on Jordan in the 1984 draft to take Sam Bowie.

Bryant is playing so well that O'Neal is having trouble with his memory. O'Neal now says his well-documented feud with Bryant this season was mostly a figment of the media's imagination.

No one is inclined to argue with the big fellow, and given the way the Lakers are playing, whatever differences the two might have had at one time, they certainly weren't irreconcilable.

O'Neal and Bryant seem to have accepted the premise that two extraordinary players can flourish on the same team. It is a win-win deal.

Or, in their case, it comes out to nine consecutive wins in the playoffs, and counting.


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