- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. | Minutes after leading his Los Angeles Lakers to the 15th NBA title in franchise history, Kobe Bryant said he felt like he got “a big, old monkey off my back.”

The monkey? Try a 7-foot-2, 300-plus-pound Shaquille O’Neal and the criticism that Bryant, who teamed with O’Neal to win three straight championships from 2000 to 2002, couldn’t win a title on his own.

Bryant spent the last seven years putting up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, but the knock remained that he couldn’t win without Shaq. Having finally won a title as a leading man rather than sidekick, Bryant - who was named NBA Finals MVP after averaging 32.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds - finally could savor silencing his doubters.

“I don’t have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore. That’s the biggest thing,” Bryant said. “It was just silly. Every team has a dynamic duo. I think it’s a shame, but it is what it is. I wasn’t going to try to argue about it. I mean, that does nothing. So you just accept the challenge and try to prove them wrong.”

And Bryant was vindicated Sunday night. Even O’Neal - who after being shipped out of Los Angeles in 2004 has publicly criticized his former teammate and belittled him - took time to give Bryant his due, posted on Twitter: “Congratulations Kobe, u deserve it. You played great. Enjoy it my man, enjoy it.”

Bryant wasn’t the only Lakers player who had something to prove. Forward Lamar Odom, acquired from Miami as part of the O’Neal trade, has heard questions about his heart and desire throughout his career. But he gutted his way through a back injury this postseason and averaged 13.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in the finals, leaving no room for doubt about his dedication.

“[The title means] I guess everything,” Odom said. “I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was 10 years old, 9 years old, and to finally get here and accomplish this is a dream come true. … I’m not going to lie. It hurt to get traded from Miami and then to watch them win a championship. But I felt my time would come. I saw this day coming.”

In a similar situation, fellow forward Pau Gasol spent the first 6 1/2 years of his career putting up All-Star numbers for the Memphis Grizzlies but was unable to turn around the perennial losers. In February 2008, Memphis traded Gasol to Los Angeles in a multiplayer deal that included draft bust Kwame Brown.

Gasol helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals last season, but they fell to the Boston Celtics, and questions arose over the Spaniard’s physical and mental toughness. Gasol spent the offseason bulking up and growing stronger so he could defend post players like Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard.

By holding the powerful Howard in check, Gasol dispelled the perceived deficiencies of his game.

“The journey is what makes it so special and so beautiful. I had to work really hard throughout my career and started off as a kid in Spain,” Gasol said. “But the day I got traded here was such a beautiful day. … From that point, it’s just been another amazing journey and adventure.”

Questions abound regarding the future of this Lakers team. Bryant can opt out of the final two seasons of his contract to become a free agent this summer and sign a five-year deal with any team he wishes (the Lakers included). He has indicated he has no plans to leave, but teammates Odom and small forward Trevor Ariza, whose 11-point second quarter sparked the Lakers’ comeback victory in Game 5, both are free agents this summer, and whether the team can afford to re-sign both is uncertain.

Odom indicated he would like to return for a repeat run next season, but when probed further on his plans, the 10th-year veteran said: “That’s the business of basketball. It’ll all take care of itself this summer. I’m enjoying this right now.”

Point guard Derek Fisher, who silenced critical jabs that he had nothing left in the tank when he knocked down three key 3-pointers to become the hero of the Game 4 overtime victory, said for now the Lakers will savor their championship victory - but only briefly.

“We’ve won a championship tonight, and we’re going to enjoy this one and celebrate like we have. But as athletes and competitors you always think about what can you accomplish next,” Fisher said. “We’ll see what happens, but definitely when we start training camp next season and we have our ring ceremony at Staples Center the first game of the regular season, our first home game, all thoughts will be on winning another championship.”

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