Sunday, June 14, 2009
Kobe Wins Fourth Title, And Now He Can Sleep Soundly
Well, after all of that, now that he's done it, I think the most apt question is, Is anyone surprised? Of course Kobe Bryant led a team to an NBA championship. For the most part, all the truest of true legends have done it, and who has ever watched Kobe during his career and not realized that they were watching the kind of pure genius you tell your grandkids about? He has over the past 13 seasons ascended to levels of play that arguably no other player has achieved. As its peak, his scoring prowess was such that he was capable of scoring 50 to 60 points in literally arbitrary fashion. Like boxing writers say about Roy Jones or Floyd Mayweather, there have been times when Bryant has operated at a level so superior to the opposition it was just mesmerizing. Defenses ceased to matter. No contemporary basketball player has outclassed more challengers (team and individual) with his skill and talent. On top of that, he's a defender, rebounder, passer, and ballhandler - and a triangle offense initiator for the first three championships of his career, Scottie Pippen only if Pippen had to score 25 a night instead of 20 and carry the crunch-time burden as well.
In other words, we have spent all of this time obsessing over something that was inevitable. We know who the best players of all-time are, they're the ones with the rings: Magic, Larry, Mike, Shaq, and Duncan have been the NBA kings of the past 30 years because they acquired the hardware. Shaquille's presence and impact was so large it cast even a megastar like Kobe into a shadow, and ensured that if Kobe retired without a title as the best player on a team his legacy would have been that of a man who couldn't win a title without the Big Guy. He would have ranked ahead of the sidekicks - the Pippens and McHales - and he would have placed before the guys who never won rings - the Barkleys and Malones. But he would have fallen short of that most exclusive of clubs, the Elite Company, with Johnson, Bird, and Jordan, etc., that we know he aspires for membership in.
But we knew those guys, and we knew Kobe, so we had to have known this day would come eventually. Of course, I say this with the knowledge that he has won the fourth championship. If ten years from now he had hung it up with only three, I'd see him in an entirely different light. Instead, I see this as the accomplishment that verifies how great I already knew he was. I also see the fourth ring as providing certification to the other three and solidifying with them, proving that he was capable of winning titles as top dawg all along: He doesn't have three rings with Shaq and one ring without, he just has four rings, period. And all he needed was sufficient enough help.
I like to compare the Kobe and Shaq duo to that of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. I once started a discussion on an HBO message board that pondered who was the better no. 2 between Stringer and Chris Partlow, and a smart commenter somewhat deflated my topic by arguing that Avon and Stringer were more or less partners, as they shared profits. Still, though, Avon's job description read drug kingpin, while Stringer's read drug lord, and as such while Stringer had an extremely crucial voice and very much his friend's ear, Avon's word was the gavel.
Similarly, while Kobe did more heavy lifting for those teams than any other "sidekick" ever did, in all honesty sharing equal responsibility with Shaq - even serving as the end-of-game go-to-guy and sometimes flat-out carrying the team - in the end he deferred. Shaq was the focal point of the offense and the most important reason for L.A.'s dominance, and thus 1A, and this was proved each June, when Kobe would fall back and let Shaq go to work in the Finals, content to do the Pippen routine while Shaq put up the monster numbers and collected that little trophy that is now named after Bill Russell.
So I think Kobe needed this one, to show that he could do it guiding the sleigh, and now that he has one of his own he must be considered one of the top-10 players to ever lace 'em up. He can just go chill out on some farm somewhere if he wants to, and give up basketball, he has nothing left to prove. Of course he'll keep pushing, he wants five and six rings, he wants as many as he can get, he wants to keep rising up the all-time ladder. But even if he doesn't win another one he can sleep soundly, his legacy is secure. I think the best athletes reach a level of greatness at which everyone's excellence becomes virtually the same. You may not be the best guy at the table, but it doesn't matter, all that counts is that you get to sit down in the first place. I think Kobe has reached that point. His persecutors will continue to throw rocks, as they say hatred lasts forever, but in truth he has silenced them, and it was really only a matter of time before he did.