Egos and Outcomes

for the week of June 17, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

Last Wednesday night saw the Los Angeles Lakers win their third NBA title in three years. They swept the plucky-but-overmatched New Jersey Nets to prove their dominance over the rest of the league.

The big story among sports writers and broadcasters was the dominant play of Shaquille O'Neal. Game 4 wasn't the big center's best game of the series with only 34 points and ten rebounds. Even so, he was allowed to revel in a personal three-peat when he was awarded his third straight finals MVP award.

But Steve Wyche of the Washington Post pointed to something a non-fan of professional basketball such as myself would have missed. On his view of things, the most significant thing about this season for the Lakers has been a decision by Kobe Bryant to experiment with an uncommon virtue.

Wyche claims the 23-year-old Kobe made the most drastic and important improvement of his playing career: "It has nothing to do with his shooting form or ball-handling skills and everything to do with ego. Bryant, a five-year veteran, isn't focused on statistics or clashes with teammates and coaches. The name of the game now is harmony."

It is widely known that there has been friction between Bryant and O'Neal. Over the past few years, Bryant had alienated basketball's dominant center, Coach Phil Jackson, and others on the team. Their locker room was tense. They didn't have much to do with each other off the court.

In a sport that produces instant-but-immature millionaires and indulges their frequently outrageous behaviors, something happened between the two athletes this year. An unwelcome realization hit Bryant that the team was built around O'Neal. "I really had to sacrifice my game for the benefit of the team."

In the championship game, O'Neal carried the team for three quarters and then yielded to Bryant in the fourth. He drove a stake through the heart of the Nets' hopes with a gorgeous Michael Jordan-style driving layup with 3:32 left. This was MVP Shaq's comment: "Kobe's the best player in this league!"

Some families, companies, and churches I know need to take note. Life is much more a team effort than solitary figures carrying the rest of us on their backs. By curbing his ego, Bryant elevated his game significantly.

Victories often come down to this trite old maxim: Be humble or stumble.

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