With a dunk, Kobe reclaims control

LOS ANGELES -- He sprung, more than he jumped. Like he used to. From a place only he knows how to reach.

For the past 48 hours, Kobe Bryant had only faith reassuring him that he'd be able to play in Game 5 Tuesday night against the New Orleans Hornets. Dissenting opinions were not allowed or acknowledged.

He would play. The stakes were too high for it not to be so.

But for the first 20 minutes of the game, faith could lift Bryant only a few inches off the floor. He was timid and tight. Limited, obviously. Nervous, palpably.

After one quarter, the Lakers trailed by nine points. The crowd inside Staples Center seemed sick to its stomach.

Could the Lakers really lose? In the first round? To the Hornets?

Could coach Phil Jackson's last stand really end in such a whimper?

Then Kobe Bryant dunked.

Like he used to all those years ago when his hair was longer and his temper was shorter.

Like he still can when he's trying to prove a point to himself as much as his foes.

"It's a message for us that this is important," Bryant said.

"And you know I save those. I don't have many of those left."

Very little about this season has gone the way it was supposed to.

Even less about this opening-round series has.

It has been as confounding as it has been frustrating. The Lakers have lost twice and been at a loss to explain either one.

But in the time it took for Bryant to catch a pass from Pau Gasol and rise up and over Emeka Okafor, in the space it took for him to reach back over his head and add that extra bit of force to the dunk that made everyone in the building scream as loudly as they exhaled, one truth came into sharp focus.

This is supposed to be Jackson's last stand.

This might be Gasol's moment to stand tall.

But this team is still Bryant's, and it will win or lose with him as its captain.

"Kobe is our leader and we go as he goes," teammate Matt Barnes said. "We followed his lead tonight.

"Most people would be sitting out a few games with the ankle he has. I've seen how swollen it is and how hard he's been working to get back out on the court. But you can never count Kobe out. He's the ultimate competitor.

"That dunk. Whooooo! That got us going. It got him going. It was amazing. And we kind of rode that momentum the rest of the game."

Okafor, who has bravely protected the paint for the Hornets in this series, could only swallow the moment and shake his head.

It was one play, but he knew it would be remembered as more than a highlight.

"I wasn't preparing myself for him to dunk," Okafor said afterwards. "It was the last thing on my mind. I was expecting him to come in with some tricky stuff, so my mindset was, 'All right, stay on your feet. Don't foul.' But then he cocked back and it was too late.

"When you're a shot-blocker, you're going to get caught sometimes, and that's what people are going to remember."

The Lakers' bench exploded as loudly as the crowd.

From shock, from awe. And yes, from relief.

"Nobody expected him to do that, like that!" teammate Shannon Brown said.

"Whatever they gave him, I want some. Whatever the shot, the pill, whatever it was ... I want some. It was like he had his Afro back."

He has dunked like that before, and even recently. In the All-Star Game this year at Staples Center, a game he seemed determined to own one last time, he threw down a thunderous reverse dunk to remind the league's newest stars that he is still to be reckoned with.

But like he said, he saves those for moments that matter. For when messages must be sent.

It's never clear afterward who he is most trying to impress. Himself? His teammates? The opponent? History?

Only he really knows. Because only he ever jumps from the place he did Tuesday night.

"I don't know what else I can add," said Derek Fisher, who has played alongside Kobe the longest. "I mean, his legacy ...

"He's just going to play. Whatever he's got going, as long as he has two hands and two feet, he's going to play. He's going to figure it out."

However this season is going to end, wherever it is going to end, he will write it.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com