No. 6: NBA Playoffs

Throughout the years, Kobe Bryant has transformed himself from ultratalented young player to veteran winner. He understood that his game was built on practice and preparation and that, unlike LeBron James, he wasn’t a physical freak. Bryant stands a wiry 6-foot-6, and night after night of double teams and hacking defenders was starting to take its toll.

So, to survive those long, deep spring playoff runs for the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant realized he didn’t need to just get better, but he also had to get tougher. He might have been his toughest when he led the Lakers to its 16th NBA championship, surviving young guns (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) and old rivals (Boston’s Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett).

James made off-court headlines for his prolonged free-agent courtship and widely panned announcement during a live, one-hour nationally televised special, “The Decision.” That he said he would “take his talents to South Beach” (and the Miami Heat) almost proved Bryant’s core belief: Forget talent — if you want to win a ring (or, in his case, five) you need cutthroat determination and a 365-day-a-year commitment to winning.

There was another lesson, too. The Lakers didn’t win it all because of Bryant’s singular talent; they won because they operated as a team, each player stepping up at different times to deliver a critical performance. There was Pau Gasol having a big game against Garnett. Ron Artest with a winner in the Western Conference finals. Derek Fisher making those back-breaking shots.

Through it all, Bryant had to understand that the Lakers’ season wasn’t just about him. No matter how much he worked, no matter how gifted he was, this was a team effort. He shot 7-for-24 in Game 7 of the NBA finals against Boston. The Lakers won anyway.

“I’m just glad my teammates got us back in the game,” Bryant said.

–Dan Wetzel