Kobe faces Superman once again

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's 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 Thursday 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 he had something to do with that.

""People that really know basketball know that that stuff means nothing,' Bryant said Monday, 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. He 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 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 still developing 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.

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. 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.'