Basketball: America entranced by the life of Bryant

Grumpy Lakers superstar thrills the celebrities as their team closes in on first NBA title since 2002. Guy Adams joins the stars courtside
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The Independent Online

At the final buzzer, Leonardo DiCaprio turned to his right and high-fived his next door neighbour. It was Zac Efron. A few seats along, Jack Nicholson leapt to his feet, and punched the air. Behind them, Denzel Washington whooped, Mark Wahlberg hollered, and Warren Beatty hugged his teenage son. Even Rihanna, sitting near the halfway line, managed to crack a smile.

Nothing, aside from Oscar night and the occasional major movie premiere, gets Hollywood's stars out in force like an LA Lakers game. And by the time their side had eeked out a nerve-jangling victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday, in extra-time, the queue of A-list stretch limos had gridlocked several blocks of downtown Los Angeles.

That's what happens when the most glamourous team in US sport gets a really big result. And their 101-96 victory, in an encounter that could very easily have gone the other way, was as important as they come. It left the Lakers leading by two victories to nothing, in the seven-match series that will decide the NBA title.

Yet yards from the party in the $10,000 front-row seats, one man seemed utterly non-plussed. Kobe Bryant, the superstar guard who has now propelled the Lakers to the brink of their first title in seven years – and in Florida late last night had an opportunity to lead them to a three-nil lead – shuffled off-court with his iconic face fixed in a steely frown.

"What's there to be happy about?" he asked reporters. "It's no big deal. [pause] The job's not finished [longer pause]. Is the job finished? I don't think so." Asked if his earlier performance had been up to scratch, he pursed his lips: "Absolutely not."

The pantomime grumpiness was the latest chapter in a personal odyssey that is transfixing America, as Bryant, the most famous man in US sport (and, according to Forbes, one of the 10 most powerful celebrities in the world) chases LA's first title since the early "noughties," when he played second fiddle to the legendary Shaquille O'Neal.

As his team has breezed past Utah, Houston and Denver in the playoffs, the prodigiously-talented Bryant has seemed angrier and more tortured the better he's played. On court, his "game face" has been a near-constant snarl; off it, he's become relentlessly sullen.

The intensity, from a man who has always tended towards grim introspection, betrays a simple truth: Bryant is now 30 years old. Since he took the mantle of leadership, the Lakers have not won a single title. He may not get another chance.

With Bryant on form, the Lakers are unstoppable. In the first of the final series, against Orlando last Thursday, he justified his $25m (£15.4m) annual salary by scoring 40 points, and the side stunned their opposition by 100-75. But when he struggles, they're eminently beatable. On Sunday, he huffed and puffed to a tally of just 29, and Orlando came within a single play of victory.

Bryant is grimly aware how easily wheels can fall off in basketball, a game of momentum. Even under manager Phil Jackson, recent years have seen the Lakers repeatedly fall at the final hurdle.

In 2004, Bryant's team lost the final to the Detroit Pistons. Last year, he led them to a draining defeat against their arch-rivals, the Boston Celtics, giving up a 24-point lead in one home game. Now the most valuable man in US sport – and the man who will the spearhead the NBA's invasion of Europe (they intend to begin playing competitive fixtures in the UK by 2012) – is finally hauling himself over the finish line with a relentless display of grim determination.

And this tortured tilt at greatness is still making great soap opera: TV ratings for this year's finals are up 20 per cent, and the games are being broadcast to 215 countries.

"I just want it so bad, that's all," Bryant said this week. "My kid has been calling me Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs the last couple of weeks," Then, for the first time in days, he smiled.