LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant is staring down the prospect of sharing the court with Superman again. Only this time, it's Dwight Howard and not Shaquille O'Neal who is wearing the cape that Bryant wants to tug on.
Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will be trying to win their first NBA title without O'Neal when the Finals open tonight against Howard and the Orlando Magic.
They failed to do so last year, losing to Boston in a humiliating Game 6 defeat.
O'Neal was traded after Los Angeles lost the 2004 Finals to Detroit, leaving Bryant the undisputed leader of a team that won three straight championships at the start of the decade. Bryant still bristles at implications that he had something to do with the trade.
"People that really know basketball know that that stuff means nothing," Bryant said, deflecting questions on O'Neal. "It's nonsensical, actually. You want to win just to win it."
Bryant, who turns 31 in August, is completing his 13th season.
The former Lower Merion star kept to himself around his older teammates early in his career.
Although he teamed with O'Neal to lead the Lakers to three straight championships, the two frequently zinged each other publicly.
Adding a fourth NBA championship to the gold medal he helped the United States win at last year's Beijing Olympics would burnish Bryant's legacy.
"You're thankful to be in this position," he said. "A lot of players never get to this position once in a career, and I've been fortunate to be here for six times now. It's been very, very lucky."
Like O'Neal, Lakers coach Phil Jackson also departed after the 2003-04 season, and later wrote a book in which he called Bryant "uncoachable." Jackson then returned after taking a season off and has had a seamless relationship with Bryant ever since.
But there have been big bumps in the road.
Bryant implored the Lakers to surround him with better players in the summer of 2007, then demanded a trade.
The team responded by adding Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and Los Angeles reached the Finals last year for the first time since 2004. Bryant also won his first league MVP award a year ago.
Jackson initially noticed a change in Bryant's outlook two years ago.
"He ended up just racing away with the scoring championship on an incredible run of about 15 games in a row," the coach recalled.
"When we came back the next year, we just said we don't want that type of ball to happen again," Jackson said. "We want more inclusiveness. There was a whole issue about us getting better talent around him and that's happened over the last two years, and here we are."
Bryant often talks about his love for his teammates and the ways in which he has counseled them on improving their games. Derek Fisher's return last season clearly benefited Bryant on and off the court. They were teammates on the Lakers from 1996 to 2004 before Fisher left for three years.
"He's continued to recognize that in order for him to accomplish some of his individual goals, the team goals have to match or exceed his own goals," Fisher said. "That means other guys around him have to perform at a high level.