Bryant wins first MVP after carrying Lakers to big year

LOS ANGELES -- Finally, an MVP award for Kobe Bryant.

Regarded as the NBA's best player for several years but never its most valuable, Bryant earned the honor at last on Tuesday after leading the Los Angeles Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference.

He called the award a blessing and an honor and emphasized that he wants another trophy this year.

"It's Hollywood, it's a movie script. The perfect ending would be for us to hold a championship trophy at the end of it," Bryant said at a news conference attended by his teammates, club officials, his wife and two daughters.

"This is an award I couldn't have won on my own. I can't thank these guys [his teammates] enough. These are my guys, these are my brothers. Let's get ready for tomorrow."

The Lakers try to take a 2-0 lead against Utah in their conference semifinal on Wednesday night. Bryant will receive the MVP trophy from commissioner David Stern before the game.

Bryant entered the season as the league's two-time defending scoring champion. He had finished as high as third in the MVP voting twice -- after the 2002-03 season, when he averaged 30 points for the first time, and last year when Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki won.

"I don't know anybody who's ever deserved this trophy more. I don't know anybody who's ever worked as hard to accomplish what he's accomplished," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had five-time MVP Michael Jordan with Chicago and was at the Lakers' helm when Shaquille O'Neal won the award in 2000.

Bryant received 82-first-place votes and 1,105 points in the media vote. He was followed by New Orleans' Chris Paul (28 and 889), Boston's Kevin Garnett (15 and 670) and Cleveland's LeBron James (1 and 438).

"I've said since two, three years ago that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league," James said before the Cavaliers faced the Celtics in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. "He's been the best player the last five, six years. I'm glad he won it. His team had a great year, finishing first in the West."

This season there was no denying the Lakers' 6-foot-6 star. Los Angeles rose to the top of the West despite key injuries and following Bryant's trade demands last spring when his team was eliminated in the first round by Phoenix for the second straight year.

Bryant averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.84 steals while playing all 82 games despite tearing a ligament in his right pinkie in February. He put off surgery until after the Olympics.

The knock on the 29-year-old Bryant had been that he didn't make those around him better -- but not anymore.

"He's deserving in this particular season with all of the question marks and everything going on coming into the season and the uncertainty," teammate Derek Fisher said. "Not only did he statistically have an MVP type of season, everybody can reasonably say they were better this year because of what he did. He met the so-called criteria, elevating his teammates' games."

Word leaked last Friday night that Bryant had won the award.

Bryant, second in the NBA in scoring behind James, is the first Laker to win the MVP award since O'Neal. Other Lakers to win since the award was first presented in 1956 were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson -- each three times. Abdul-Jabbar also won three with Milwaukee for six overall, the most ever.

"I didn't expect this award would come to me," Bryant said. "I'm surprised. I've played pretty well in other seasons. Our team hasn't been as good. Things just fell into place."

Bryant and O'Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive championships, from 2000-02, and a berth in the finals in 2004. The Lakers hadn't won a playoff series since until sweeping Denver in the first round last month.

Bryant and O'Neal were often at odds during their eight years together. Assistant coach Brian Shaw, who played for the Lakers from 1999-03, has noticed a big difference in Bryant.

"He's a much better teammate now than he was in the championship days. That's a credit to his maturation. There were definitely times when he was not a good teammate. No one worked harder than he did. The same is true today," Shaw said.

"In terms of connecting with his teammates off the court, he didn't do that very much. Now, from what I hear, he goes out to dinner with them all the time. Who knows? Maybe he likes these teammates better than us," Shaw added with a laugh.

Bryant has said this was his best regular season and his most enjoyable -- very different from his feelings last spring. First, he challenged the Lakers to upgrade their roster, then demanded a trade.

Things quieted down and Bryant said all the right things during training camp until Lakers owner Jerry Buss said he would listen to trade offers. That upset Bryant again, but he promised he would focus on basketball once the season began.

And so he did.

After a 9-8 start, the Lakers put it together. The most obvious upgrades were Fisher and Pau Gasol, acquired Feb. 1 from Memphis. The Lakers already had Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic -- all former first-round draft choices -- when Bryant had his tirade last spring. All three, especially the 20-year-old Bynum, showed great improvement, but the 7-footer hasn't played since injuring his left knee Jan. 13.

Another talented newcomer, Trevor Ariza, has been sidelined since breaking his right foot Jan. 20. Gasol missed nine games late in the season because of a sprained ankle.

Through it all, led by their MVP, the Lakers kept winning. And now they appear to have as good a chance as any team to win another NBA championship.