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The Life

The One: Part 1
ESPN The Magazine
Whose team is it? Senior writer Ric Bucher spent many days with Kobe, Shaq and Phil, and prepared this story for ESPN The Magazine. Here's Part 1.

So here we are at the summit with the defending champions, who just happen to have the league's two most dominating players. Only that's not good enough, for either them or us. Which is the most dominant player? Who is the true leader, the more indispensable piece, the proverbial drink-stirring straw? It was undeniably Shaq last season, an honor he waited seven years to claim, an honor he fully expected to enjoy for several seasons to come. But it's no longer his, for one simple reason: Kobe refuses to wait for anything.

Forget the argument about which player the Lakers can less afford to lose. This is about which one captures your attention, your imagination and, yes, your respect, however grudgingly it may be given. It's about a player who has a vision of himself atop the basketball universe and will accept nothing less than that realization. It's Kobe's team; in fact, it's Kobe's league. If and when Shaq and the rest of the Lakers come to grips with that will determine if they can repeat as champions.

"Bottom line, Shaq is going to have to become comfortable with it," says Laker guard Brian Shaw, who goes back to Orlando with O'Neal. "Because Kobe is not going to change, I'll tell you that right now."

Kobe has defied more than logic to get here. He's scaled an entire mountain range of resistance, as much from within the Lakers organization as from any triple-teaming opponent. One week into this season Jackson privately asked him to resume last season's role, letting the offense flow through Shaq and taking over only in the final seconds of a possession or the final minutes of the game.

Kobe's response: "Turn my game down? I need to turn it up. I've improved. How are you going to bottle me up? I'd be better off playing someplace else."

Jackson normally wages public campaigns to get players to do his bidding, but Kobe's veiled threat of a trade demand would have been far too volatile in the court of public opinion. Kobe responded to Jackson's request to pull back by cranking it up -- his average of 16 shots in the first five games jumped to 26 over the next five. But his performance rocketed as well. A string of five games of 31 or more points vaulted him to the top of the league's scoring race. Then came 43 against the Spurs, 38 against the Mavs, 36 against the 76ers -- while forcing The Answer to take 27 shots to score 27 points -- and 51 in 51 minutes in a classic battle with the Warriors' Antawn Jamison.

Finally, after Kobe outdueled Vince 40-31 in a win over Toronto, a Canadian broadcaster declared, "The Lakers were known last year as Shaq's team. Not anymore." Later that same night, the Lakers' victory was discussed by the broadcast crew on ESPN Sunday Night Football. Gushed Joe Theismann about Kobe: "I don't think there's anything he can't do." Not one word was said about Shaq, last year's All-Star, regular-season and Finals MVP.

Click here to read Shaq's response.

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