Kobe Bryant never imagined that watching his Los Angeles Lakers win could be so humbling. But confined to the bench with an ankle injury for a couple of weeks in March, Kobe couldn't kid himself: the defending NBA champion Lakers were clearly playing better without him. All season long the 22-year-old superstar had infuriated his teammates with his selfish play and aggravated Shaquille O'Neal, the league's reigning MVP, by challenging his leadership. Coach Phil Jackson had warned Kobe that the spat with Shaq could even jeopardize his Laker career. Bryant tried to distract himself by thinking about his impending nuptials, only a few weeks away. And it suddenly dawned on him how "for better or worse" just might apply to his team as well. "He was starting a whole new life with a lot of new rules," says a teammate in whom Kobe confided. "If he was going to have to share toothpaste and the remote with his wife, why not the ball with his team too?"
When Kobe returned to action in April, he executed a reversal as stunning as any of his dunks. He ignored open shots to pass to teammates, cut down on his mad, solo dashes to the hoop and gave the supersensitive O'Neal the respect the big man deserved. With Kobe back as the faithful sidekick, the Lakers went on a tear, one that threatens to make a shambles of the playoffs. In the first half of the season, the Lakers seemed destined for an early spring vacation; by the end of January they had already lost 16 games--more than the team lost all last season. But last week, after they'd whipped San Antonio twice on its home court, the Lakers' winning streak reached 17. "When you sit on the bench, you see the game in different ways," explains Bryant. "You make the adjustments you have to make to win. It should be no surprise that, despite the rocky stuff, we got it together."
Kobe's selfish attitude had his teammates wondering if that would ever happen. He began the year intent on matching Shaq's MVP season of a year ago, even telling one confidant, "I already have a ring. Now I want to get a scoring crown and an MVP trophy." But while his scoring soared, he left his teammates in the dust. His dazzling moves graced the sports-highlight shows. What the clips didn't show was the other Lakers standing around helplessly while Bryant went one-on-five. Kobe was hardly the only problem. O'Neal was overweight and not in tiptop shape. And like many title teams, the Lakers were too cocky and complacent. "There's this sense of invincibility that hits you, and it can damage your game and your relationships on the court," says forward Rick Fox.
But it was the feud between his two stars, who weren't talking to each other on or off the court, that frustrated Jackson the most. For most of the season, the coach was hesitant to intervene. "I'm not their parents," he explained to NEWSWEEK. "I saw no need to tell adults how to behave or get along." But when the funk threatened to mire the Lakers behind four or five teams in their conference, the coach decided to take Bryant aside. Jackson told him that Shaq, despite his public plea to be traded, wasn't going anywhere, but that Kobe, if he was unhappy with his role, might have to contemplate an NBA future elsewhere. "Some players understand early on that everyone makes sacrifices for the team," says veteran forward Robert Horry, a key player in two Houston championships who now plays a backup role with L.A. "Some take forever to get it. And some just have to relearn it every year."
Kobe has learned this year's lesson, and it may, finally, stick. "We're playing great basketball now because we're playing as a team," he says. "I'm very clear on that." And by playing with his team, Bryant has seen his own stature ascend to exactly where he always hoped it would be. With O'Neal battered and bothered by San Antonio's formidable Twin Towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, Bryant has emerged as the Western Conference Final's singular star. For the first time, comparisons to Michael Jordan aren't being dismissed as hype. Even Shaq graciously praised Bryant, after his 45-point effort in the series opener, as "by far" the best player in the NBA. Kobe could win a new ring as lavish as the one he gave his wife, and may-be even one of those MVP trophies he so covets.