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Bill Plaschke: Kobe Bryant's spirit hovers over Lakers' NBA championship triumph

Bill Plaschke: Kobe Bryant's spirit hovers over Lakers' NBA championship triumph

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LOS ANGELES - From the heavens, they were touched.

To the heavens, they have soared.

On the wings of the fallen Kobe Bryant and the prayers of a restless city, the Los Angeles Lakers have once again reached basketball's glorious peak.

At AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Florida, on Sunday night, Los Angeles' most beloved sports franchise ended a decade-long drought by defeating the Miami Heat, 106-93, to capture its 17th NBA championship.

The clinching blowout, in which the overmatched Heat were quickly swarmed and suffocated, gave the Lakers a 4-2 NBA Finals win that ended in exhausted hugs and bold proclamations.

With the 17 titles - a dozen of which were won with the team based in Los Angeles - the Lakers have finally equaled the number won by the hated Boston Celtics and thus can claim at least a share of the title of greatest NBA franchise ever.

By becoming the first player to win the NBA Finals MVP award with three different franchises - while winning his fourth title overall - the Lakers' LeBron James can surely claim at least a share of the title with Michael Jordan as greatest player ever.

Then there is the history made by Jeanie Buss, who cheered from the upper tier of the near-empty Orlando gym while wearing a mask. Three years after wresting control of the organization, she becomes the first female controlling owner to accept the Larry O'Brien Trophy, symbolic of an NBA championship.

The real hero of the Lakers' title run, however, could be found in the clothing they wore and the name they chanted. The biggest star was the memory of the late Kobe Bryant, whose spirit hovered over everything and whose influence was felt everywhere.

After Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, the Lakers vowed to play the season in his honor. In a speech to a weeping Staples Center crowd in their first game after the tragedy, James publicly promised.

"The one thing that we always shared was that determination to just always want to win and just want to be great," James said. "I want to continue along with my teammates, to continue his legacy ... because that's what Kobe Bryant would want."

Done and done.

Throughout a postseason run in which they lost just five times in 21 games, they broke their huddles chanting, "1-2-3-Mamba!" They wore his shoes. They wore his T-shirts. They affixed their signatures to signs that carried his credo "Leave a Legacy."

When Anthony Davis hit their postseason's most memorable shot - a three-point buzzer beater to devastate Denver in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals - he pounded his chest and shouted, "Kobe!" That play will be forever known as "The Mamba Shot."

"Kobe's presence was magical," said Tim Harris, the Lakers' president of business operations and chief operating officer. "It was like we were playing six on five."

This was evident when they wore the snakeskin Black Mamba jerseys designed by Bryant himself. They were 4-1 in those jerseys. Davis hit that shot against Denver in those jerseys. They wore those jerseys like armor. They competed in those jerseys like Kobe.

"An insane amount of pressure for sure, but we don't want to lose, we don't want to let him down," said Davis.

They couldn't. They wouldn't. But their final victory Sunday was one whose sweetness was tinged with the bitter. The most impactful force in these Finals, as with all sporting events in these last eight months, was the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the playoffs should have taken place in a crazed Staples Center instead of a near-empty gym 2,500 miles away. The famously passionate Lakers fans deserved to share these moments instead of watching them from their living rooms. There should be a championship parade, but that's going to be impossible.

Nonetheless, Laker Nation will take it, especially after enduring the many wicked curves in a journey that began after the team's last championship in 2010.

The Lakers thought they were headed back to greatness in 2011 when they traded for All-Star Chris Paul. But the deal was considered unfair and vetoed by former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

They thought they had the answer a season later when they acquired All-Stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. But their hopes were derailed by injuries and attitude and, oh yeah, Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon and was never the same.

The franchise's direction eventually fell into such chaos, Buss had to fire her brother Jim to gain control. She then hired Magic Johnson to run their basketball operations, but barely two years later, he quit.

During these last 10 years, the Lakers missed the playoffs for a franchise-record six straight seasons while going through seven coaches and three regime changes. Only at its lowest point did the organization finally glimpse hope.

That's when James, a future Hall of Famer, showed up. He signed in the summer of 2018 mostly because it was good for his fledging entertainment business - he wanted to work in Los Angeles - but soon booing Lakers fans showed him more was expected.

"What I've learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don't give a damn what you've done before," James said this past week. "Until you become a Laker, you've got to do it with them."

Thusly reprimanded after a detached first season, James went to work last summer on rebuilding his image and rediscovering a championship.

First, the Lakers hired cerebral coach Frank Vogel, the perfect curator for James' intelligent style. Then James and his business associates helped recruit All-Star Anthony Davis, who demanded to be traded here from New Orleans, giving the Lakers a dynamo duo reminiscent of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

Then, after general manager Rob Pelinka surrounded them with valuable veteran role players such as Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and even Howard, James became a forceful but embraceable leader.

He enabled even the team's most unheralded pieces - think Game 6 starter and star Alex Caruso - while empowering Vogel. He publicly led them through the pain of Bryant's death, the uncertainty of the pandemic shutdown, and even reportedly even held private workouts during the summer hiatus.

By the time the Lakers entered the Orlando bubble in late July, they had the league's second-best record and its absolute best chemistry.

And they had the strength of Kobe.

"It's like they've got a super power," Harris said. "They seem to be playing for something bigger than a championship. How can you watch all that's happened and not believe he's with us?"

Today, a team, a league and a city believes.

When Bryant retired in 2016, he famously ended his final Staples Center speech with, "Mamba out!"

Never.

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