- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Remember the drama that threatened to ruin the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty before it ever got rolling?
Last year near midseason, there was a story that Shaquille O'Neal had slapped Kobe Bryant in the face. There was coach Phil Jackson saying that Bryant used to deliberately shave points during high school games so that he could rally his team to victory.
The tension never seemed to stop. Rather, it grew and grew, adding fuel to the fire that was the once-rancorous relationship between Bryant and O'Neal a relationship that threatened to ruin the vision that then-general manager Jerry West had of the Lakers dominating the NBA when he paired the two in 1996.
So bad was the feuding superstars' relationship, went one story, that one day Bryant was supposed to have called then-Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan and pleaded that Jordan orchestrate a trade with the Lakers to bring Bryant to Washington.
While there was some truth in all of that, the drama and tension that existed in Lakerland is a thing of the past. Now the Lakers hold a 3-0 lead over the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals, and a victory in Game 4 tomorrow night will establish the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers among the great teams in league history.
And the childish feud that once festered between the principals is now a source of laughter.
"Now we understand our relationship," Bryant said. "I understand my role perfectly. My teammates know that, Shaquille knows that. He knows what he has to do, and we all just fall in line.
"It took a long road to get here we had our ups and downs. But we understand our roles clearly, and from here on out it should be pretty smooth sailing. Unless we bring in Dennis Rodman."
Dating back to last season, the Lakers have won seven consecutive games in the finals. A victory tomorrow would give Jackson his first sweep in the finals, something even his Chicago Bulls and Jordan were incapable of delivering in six tries.
And because of the now-harmonious relationship, the rest of the league can shudder. O'Neal is clearly the most dominant player in the game and arguably the most dominant player in any of the major team sports.
At 30, O'Neal is playing as well as any center ever has in the finals, averaging 37 points while making just a shade less than 60 percent of his field goals. He is also averaging 13 rebounds and three blocks in the series.
But ask him who the top player in the world is and he defers to his 23-year-old teammate.
"Kobe's the best player in this league," O'Neal says. "The scary thing about that is, he doesn't think he's the best and he wants to get better, and he will get better. Honestly, I'm just glad he's on my team, and I'm glad that he's playing with me. I'm just glad to be part of that 1-2 punch."
Bryant appears to have opened the chasm between him and all other players in the league not named O'Neal. When nagging injuries prevented the 7-foot-1, 350-pound O'Neal from performing at his best against San Antonio and league MVP Tim Duncan in the second round, Bryant took over games at crucial times.
And Bryant has put up MVP numbers of his own in the finals, averaging 27.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and a team-high 4.3 assists. When the two are hitting, as they are now against New Jersey, no team in the league can offset the combination.
New Jersey's Jason Kidd, runner-up in balloting for regular-season MVP, believes much of the credit for the Lakers' success has to go to Jackson, who is on the verge of coaching his ninth NBA championship team.
"It takes a coach to be able to get those guy to coexist," Kidd said. "He's been through everything with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. I think he used some of that experience when things were a little bit tough between Kobe and Shaq. He drew from his past experiences to get those guys to play together."
New Jersey's Byron Scott, in the finals in only his second season as an NBA head coach, thinks the success Bryant and O'Neal have enjoyed together has played a large role in them becoming the dominant players in the league.
"Winning cures all ills," said Scott, who won three titles as a player with the Lakers. "I think that Kobe understands that, just like I think Shaq does, that they need each other."
No one knows where all of this will end up. After the Lakers finish off the Nets, the talk will almost immediately turn to Bryant and O'Neal leading Los Angeles to a fourth title.
For now, though, Jackson, who has two years left on his contract, just wants to focus on tomorrow's game not his team's place in history, not his accomplishments.
But he does poke his chest out when talking about where his two superstars were and where they are now.
"That's the one thing that's been very pleasing to me as a coach, to see the two of them find success and complement each other in their games and play as partners, finding a way to win," Jackson said. "Very pleasing."


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