Kobe Bryant: A Legacy on the Line - at Hoopcity

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Hoopcity Magazine about Kobe Bryant and his legacy. Edition #2 of Hoopcity has been pushed back a couple of weeks to accommodate the NBA Finals, so the Kobe article has been published online while the Lakers and Celtics are stilling battling it out… while Kobe’s legacy still hangs in the balance. Go check it out.

Kobe Bryant: A Legacy on the Line at Hoopcity.

Here’s the article in full.

A challenge was issued to me by everyone who said I would never succeed again, that I would never win another ring or enjoy another parade. I accepted their challenge. I accepted the doubt of every one who spoke of my downfall and used their words as fuel.” – Kobe Bryant, 2006

Kobe Bryant has a problem. He is the best player in the league today. He is the ultimate scoring weapon. He led his team to the top of the toughest Western Conference in league history. He finally won the MVP. He was named to the All NBA First Team and All Defensive First Team, again. His team has gone deep into the playoffs and he has a chance to win his fourth ring. After years of stumbling at the foothills he has finally climbed back to the top of the NBA mountain. Make no mistake about it, Kobe Bryant has a problem.

In the cutthroat world of the NBA, sometimes failure defines a player’s career more so than success. Karl Malone was an MVP but will always be regarded as the guy who lost in two Finals to MJ and the Bulls. Patrick Ewing was simply dominant for an entire decade yet his career may be defined by the Finals run the Knicks made in ’99 without him. Even David Robinson who won two championships and an MVP is still remembered for being smoked by Hakeem in the ’95 Conference Finals. History can be unkind and downright brutal to a player’s legacy – it only takes one series, one game, one moment to change everything. This is Kobe Bryant’s predicament. Despite everything he has achieved in his illustrious career so far, 2007-2008 will be the season that defines his legacy, whether he likes it or not.

The Ultimate Scorer
“I think he’s gonna score 100. He’s gonna put it together for four straight quarters and it’s gonna get ugly.” – Al Harrington, 2006

During the 2007-2008 regular season Stephen Jackson said something intelligent (yes I know, hard to believe). Talking about Kobe Bryant, SJ remarked “He has no tendencies”. Not a lot has been made of that quote, probably because it came from the mouth of Captain Jack who is better at crowd-fighting than playing defense, but I think it’s the most accurate, succinct and fitting way to describe Kobe Bryant’s game. “He has no tendencies”. Think about that. How can a basketball player not have tendencies? Is that even possible? When Dwayne Wade is dancing on the perimeter you know he wants to drive to the hoop. When Rip Hamilton catches the ball curling round a screen you know he’s going to launch the shot. When Duncan catches it on the wings from fifteen feet you can bet your house on the bank shot. Even Michael Jordan had his tendencies – he wasn’t going to hurt you from 28 feet. Every player has their preferred shot, preferred side of the court, their weaknesses, their go-to move. Every one except Kobe Bryant.

From watching Kobe during the “scoring years” (2005-2007) I quickly learnt that what makes him so unique is his insatiable scoring appetite. The guy feasts on points like he has an eating disorder. This is different to talent; it’s one thing to be able to score a lot, it’s another thing to convince yourself to keep scoring when you’ve already got forty points. People say MJ was ruthless at attacking the basket, but he wasn’t like this. He never made a habit of scoring 30 in a quarter, 40 in a half, 50 in a half. Jordan reached his career-high 69 points in an overtime game – Kobe almost had that many in three quarters. What allows him to be so relentless is the fact he has “no tendencies”. You can’t slow down Kobe Bryant, there’s no place on the floor you want to push him to. There hasn’t been a defense designed yet that will help you, and it means that for the full forty-eight minutes you’re completely at his mercy. As a young Laker Kobe once said “What I’m doing right now, I’m chasing perfection”. It would seem that chase is over.

“At times it’s frustrating and it tries my patience, but in the beginning years of my career my teammates were patient with me and trusted in the fact that I would figure everything out, so now I must return that favor to this generation of Lakers. This is our challenge, our mountain, and these are my brothers.” –- Kobe Bryant, 2006

Ask most NBA players and coaches who the best player in the game today is and you’ll hear a common theme:

“I’ve said since two, three years ago that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league.” -– Lebron James
“Everyone knows Kobe is the best in the game right now.” -– Mike D’Antoni
“To me he is the best player in the world right now.” -– Dirk Nowitzki
“Kobe is the best in the game right now man. Who better than Kobe?” -– Amare Stoudemire
“I’ve always said from the beginning that I felt Kobe was the best player in the league.” -– Chauncey Billups
“He’s the number one player in the league, by far.” -– Gilbert Arenas on Kobe
“Kobe is in a stratosphere of his own.” – Avery Johnson

This is not a new sentiment by any means. During his title winning years with Shaq, Kobe was widely regarded as the best all-round player in the game – it’s essentially a mantle he’s held for the last half decade. But now he has an MVP which officially makes you a legend of the game. Kobe didn’t need the MVP to prove he was great – we already knew that. He needed it to prove he was great at being a leader, at making his teammates better. Like Kobe said, “This is not an individual award. This is an award I couldn’t have won on my own”.

The Legacy
“Why would you ever play if you don’t want to be the best player who ever lived? That’s how I think everyone would go into it. You want to be the man, you know, not the best of the moment, but the best who ever set foot on a basketball court.” -– Kobe Bryant, 1998

In a recent poll of ESPN basketball experts, Kobe Bryant was voted the second greatest shooting guard of all time behind Michael Jordan, and ahead of Jerry West. Take a few seconds to digest that. A guy who is still in the prime of his basketball career is already regarded as the second greatest ever at his position. Where do you go from there? When you’re sitting comfortably behind MJ in the ranks, what is left to gain?

For Kobe, the question is just as much about what is left to lose.

The 05-06 and 06-07 seasons saw Kobe lead a mediocre Lakers team to mediocre win records and early playoff exits (and yes, any team with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the starting line-up is by default “mediocre”. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself where Smush and Kwame are now. Are they in a starting unit? Are they even on a basketball team?). But the basketball world was kind to Kobe, because with our own eyes we could see Kwame air-balling lay ups, we could see Smush bricking threes, and we could see Lamar turn marshmallow when the game was on the line. We knew that Kobe carrying the Lakers to 40-something wins and a seventh seed while averaging 35-5-5 was already a phenomenal effort, without winning a playoff series. We didn’t expect anything more.

Now it’s different. Now there’s expectations.

There’s a saying my dad once invented: “The higher you climb, the harder you fall”. We have seen Kobe’s legacy rise and rise – the early championships, the ultimate scorer, the MVP, the second greatest shooting guard ever – but right now it’s teetering on the edge of a cliff. On one side is a steep drop reaching down to the graveyard of failures past – the legacies of Malone, Ewing, and every other condemned legend of the game. You can hear the haunting whispers… “Kobe couldn’t lead his team to a championship”… “He had the best team in the West and he still couldn’t do it”… “That’s no MVP… he couldn’t even get the ring”… “You never saw MJ lose in the Finals”… “He only won those championships because of Shaq… he just proved it”.

On the other side of the cliff is a steep incline, a road to the upper echelons of basketball greatness, a road travelled by very few. You want to know the list of players with four championship rings and an MVP? It’s very short: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ,Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. In less than a week from now we will know if Kobe’s name has been added to this list. We will either look back on the 2007-2008 NBA season and remember it as the year Kobe’s legacy soared to rest comfortably alongside Magic and Michael, or the year he fell down that mountain. Many players have never recovered from that fall and to this day stare back at the summit, dreaming of what could have been. But if Kobe falls, something tells me he’ll just haul everyone on his back and start climbing again. Balancing on the edge of that mountain doesn’t scare Kobe, it inspires him.

Yes Kobe Bryant has a problem. It’s the problem he’s been waiting for his whole career.

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