EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) -Jerry West has had a front-row seat to watch the evolution of Kobe Bryant: precocious teenager, three-time NBA champion, angry superstar and beloved MVP.
One of the game's all-time greats himself, West can relate to some of what Bryant has experienced. And the man known as Mr. Clutch understands what separates Bryant from the rest.
``He's a Picasso in basketball shoes, absolutely - one of those once-in-a-lifetime players,'' West said. ``Kobe is the ultimate closer in the game. In all sports you seem to have people who play at a high level when it's important. You don't see anyone do it like him today, you really don't.''
Bryant was the ultimate closer last week when the Los Angeles Lakers beat San Antonio 100-92 to advance to their first NBA finals berth since 2004.
The Spurs scored five straight points to draw within two, prompting a Los Angeles timeout. Bryant then scored 10 of his 39 points in the final 3:32.
``I haven't seen anyone better than him in that context, as a finisher,'' said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's career scoring leader and a Lakers assistant.
Bryant recalled some advice West once gave him.
``He said when the game is on the line, he feels like the shots are actually easier to make,'' Bryant said. ``It was interesting to hear him say that and try to understand how he views those clutch situations and how I can learn from that and try to be that way.''
West spent more than 40 years with the Lakers as a player, coach and executive. He knew when he watched the 17-year-old Bryant in a pre-draft workout in 1996 that he was in the presence of future greatness.
Bryant is now in the exclusive company of players who dominated their generations: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, West, Elgin Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
``Kobe had all the intangibles, this spirited way about him, unbelievably sure of himself, that he was the best, even at that age,'' West said. ``He always expected everyone to be as competitive as him, as gifted as him. There are very few players that have ever been able to match his skill, determination and desire.
``He's just one of those unique kids who's been unique from the start, who could dribble the basketball through five men and score. That's not the way to play basketball.''
That's a lesson Bryant has learned.
``He finally gets it,'' West said. ``He has probably been kind of a lightning rod for a lot of stuff. He just wants to win. He expects everyone to want to do the same.''
Bryant, who turns 30 in August, is completing his 12th season. He didn't mix much with older teammates early in his career. Although he teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Lakers to three straight championships, the two feuded like crazy.
O'Neal was traded a month after the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA finals. Bryant still bristles at implications he had something to do with that.
The other day, as the Lakers prepared for the Boston Celtics in their first appearance in the finals since O'Neal left, Bryant said he was never unhappy in his role as the No. 2 option.
``I've never said I want my own team,'' he said.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson also left after the 2003-04 season, and later wrote a book in which he called Bryant ``uncoachable.'' Jackson would return after taking a season off and seems to have had an excellent relationship with Bryant since.
When Bryant demanded to be traded last summer, Jackson served as an ally of sorts. When Bryant won his first MVP award last month, his coach said he didn't know anybody who deserved it more. Jackson coached Jordan, a five-time MVP, in Chicago and was with the Lakers when O'Neal won the award in 2000.
Bryant has talked all season about his love for his teammates, and they've clearly returned the affection. It hasn't always been that way - far from it.
The return of Derek Fisher this season clearly benefited Bryant on and off the court. The two were teammates with the Lakers from 1996-04 before Fisher left for three years.
``I've always felt like the biggest difference is he's just an adult man,'' Fisher said. ``You think differently, you emote differently, you're a man. Growth in your own life will continue to give you a broader and sometimes brighter perspective. Things change when you go from a younger guy to an older guy. You have a responsibility to be instructive.''
West has watched the last year unfold from a distance.
``This has been a unique year because everything started out kind of ugly,'' West said. ``Probably Kobe looked in the mirror one day and said, 'Oh, my gosh, we're better than I thought we were. I'm going to get some help.'''
The help came from several teammates, especially Andrew Bynum until the 20-year-old center was hit with a season-ending knee injury Jan. 13. The Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis less than three weeks later in what Bryant this week termed a ``nice little donation.''
Bryant has called this his best regular season and his most enjoyable. That's a long 3-pointer from last spring when he challenged the Lakers to upgrade their roster, then demanded a trade. He has opened up recently about how tough last summer was.
``I had bags under my eyes,'' he said with a smile, referring to his trouble sleeping. ``I think it would have been a much harder summer if we weren't playing with the USA team. I think that helped me take my mind off a lot of things and focus on the game.
``Once training camp came around, all I thought about was basketball. It was right back to business and doing what I do. Once the season started, I didn't think about a trade or anything like that. I just buckled down into what I needed to do to get this team to play our best basketball. That's what we did.''
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