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Kobe - love him or hate him?

Kobe Bryant

Highlights - Lakers win NBA title (UK users only)

By Ian Whittell

Phil Jackson, the LA Lakers and, above all others, Kobe Bryant stood on top of the basketball world in Orlando on Sunday.

Yet, in the contest for the hearts and minds of the great American sporting public, Bryant may still be fighting a losing battle.

His 30 points in the 99-86 victory over the Orlando Magic clinched the 2009 NBA title for the Lakers and their 15th championship overall.

Kobe Bryant celebrates with his family
Kobe Bryant celebrates NBA success with his wife and daughters

It also secured a record tenth title for their brilliant coach Jackson and the title of Finals MVP for Bryant himself.

It was also Bryant's fourth championship, having been part of the Lakers teams that won titles from 2000-2 alongside the larger-than-life and decidedly off-the-wall Shaquille O'Neal.

Bryant, rightly or wrongly, was later accused of forcing O'Neal out of LA because of his supposed desperation to prove he could be the sole leader of a championship team.

Now, Bryant is exactly that.

But in a nation that tends to idolise its superstars - particularly winners like Michael Jordan and O'Neal himself - Kobe polarises opinion into the 'Love Him' or 'Hate Him' camps.

Bryant's much-publicised brush with the law in Colorado in 2003, when he was accused of raping a hotel worker, did not help his public persona, even though charges were eventually dropped.

Much of mainstream America may now have re-embraced the 30-year-old, his shoe company, for example, running a huge advertising campaign throughout these NBA play-offs featuring a Kobe puppet.

Right now, it really feels like a dream, it feels unbelievable

Kobe Bryant

Still, opposition fans love to bait Bryant and even an embarrassingly fluffy Spike Lee fly-on-the-wall documentary that followed him throughout a recent game did little to improve the perception of Bryant as a player to whom it is hard to warm.

Of course, it hardly helped during these Finals that Bryant has been so focused upon victory, and so miserable for his family to be around, that he revealed his children have christened him "Grumpy."

The in-your-face TV coverage of the games also frequently showed Bryant berating team-mates during time-outs, trying to will them to match his own imperious standards.

Bryant's curious public standing also explains why many pundits were quick to point out a couple of sub-par outings from him against Orlando, where fatigue or, perhaps, old age seemed to be taking their toll late in games.

But, whatever the general perception about Bryant, Game Five showed him at his very best, bringing team-mates into play when necessary then making the key plays that set the tone at vital stages of the game.

Kobe Bryant adds another two points against the Magic
Bryant's talents are unquestioned

A outlandish dunk on his marker Mickael Pietrus was the spark for the Lakers pulling away in the second period and building a 56-46 interval lead.

An equally outrageous spinning baseline move in the third put LA up by 11.

And a devastating three-pointer in the fourth period eased the Lakers 16 points up and removed any lingering danger.

"You grow as person, grow as man and try to figure out best way to lead these guys," said Bryant of his development over the past nine years since his first championship.

"This means everything. We sacrificed so much, put in so much time, so much effort, they are a group of guys who are like brothers to me and now we can enjoy it together.

"It was just the challenge of it that drove me on. It's so tough, it's a world championship and you have to start from scratch every year.

"Right now, it really feels like a dream, it feels unbelievable."

Where Bryant goes from here in terms of his public image is unclear - he would not, for example, be the first sportsman on the planet to gain in popularity as he mellows and ages.

But one place he is not going is to another NBA team. Bryant, who earned just over $21m from the Lakers this season, can opt out of his contract this summer but, when asked if he was likely to do so, replied with a simple: "No."

Love him or hate him, Kobe Bryant is set to be the NBA's dominant force for some years yet.



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see also
Highlights - Lakers win NBA title
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Magic bounce back in NBA Finals
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Lakers edge to win over Orlando
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NBA star tips Lakers to win title
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