Kobe's playing to seal his legacy
I love these people who claim to envy the life of a sportswriter. Me, I have to leave a perfectly good Memorial Day barbeque, mid-margarita, to get on the freeway, push my way into a media scrum and have a guy lie to my face.
“Kobe,” I ask, “how important is it to you to be recognized as the best player in the game?”
“I don’t care.”
Nah. Not at all. Not Kobe Bryant.
A couple of weeks ago, he felt it necessary to invent a blood feud with the Phoenix Suns. You’ve heard of the fierce and storied Lakers-Suns rivalry, no? Well, apparently, only Bryant has. But again, I’m compelled to mention the unappreciated component of his genius: the ability to take things personally, a seething ambition nourished by slights and humiliations, both real and imagined.
You think his spirits weren’t lifted by LeBron James’ early exit from the playoffs? Just last month, it was commonly accepted that James was the best player in the game. He was, after all, the reigning two-time MVP. Then again, once upon a time, so was Steve Nash. Point is, without a championship on the resume, the best-player argument is a silly one.
For now, it suffices to say that LeBron James aspires to be basketball’s biggest brand. Bryant wants to be its best player.
In a league where everybody seems to be playing for their next contract, he’s playing for posterity. Sure, he wants to be the best. But more than that, he wants to go down as the best ever. The task may prove bigger than him, but the case could yet become an arguable one. Bryant already has more championships than Larry Bird and as many as Shaquille O’Neal (whom he passed in stature a couple of years ago). A victory over the Celtics would put him in a tie with Magic Johnson, within one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the player to whom he is most often compared.
No, I don’t think Bryant is as good a player as Michael Jordan, a six-time Finals MVP. But the question is worth revisiting in a few weeks. Or a few years.
In the meantime, recall that Jordan was famously self-motivated by getting cut in the tenth grade. Bryant doesn’t have to go back that far. He’s now coming up on the second anniversary of the great humiliation in his basketball career. That would be the 2008 Finals.
Jordan’s would-be heir -- then a reigning MVP, himself -- turned in some truly awful nights against the Celtics, shooting 9-for-26, 6-for-19, 8-for-21 and going 7-for-22 in Game 6, the most lopsided elimination game in the history of the NBA Finals. It wasn’t just bad shooting, either. A player as abundantly talented as Bryant comes to be seen, quite justifiably, as a personification of his team. And as Bryant knows too well, the 2008 Lakers weren’t just out-toughed by Boston. They were shamed -- with just two offensive rebounds in that clinching game. Don’t think any of that has been lost on Kobe Bryant. And don’t think that’s good news for Boston, either.
I mean, if he was pissed off about losing to the Suns in ’06 and ’07, one can only imagine what he has in store for the Celtics. It's worth noting here that Bryant's best opportunity to shine may come on the defensive end. He'll be guarding Boston's best player, 24-year-old Rajon Rondo, maybe the quickest point guard in the league.
“What we do is personal,” said Derek Fisher, the closest thing Bryant has to a confidante among his teammates. “It’s our job. The time and the commitment it takes to win and play at this level ... It’s very personal.”
Sure. But for Bryant, it’s more so. In Bryant’s case, victory seems an existential quest. No one has played this many minutes, this many games, this young. What’s more, he’s played these last few seasons with contemptuous disregard for his orthopedic condition, the state of his fingers, knees and ankle.
“He works so hard,” says Lamar Odom. “Whether it’s his game, or studying film. I’ve known him for a long time. I remember when I first met him about 15 years ago, at a top 100 camp in Princeton. You could just tell then how he carried himself, how focused he was, how decisive he was -- even though he was only 16 years old.”
“How was he different than the rest of you?”
“His mindset,” said Odom. “His willingness to compete to be the best.”
“You mean, him wanting to be seen as the best there is?”
“I think that’s a fair enough assessment.”
Later, Phil Jackson spoke of the upcoming series as a “a chance to avenge really an uncomfortable feeling that some of these team members went through in Boston.”
With that in mind, I asked whether Kobe took defeat more personally than some of his other players.
“He devotes so much of his life to this game,” said Jackson. “It really does take an inordinate amount of time in his daily life. It isn’t a pastime to him. This is a devotion, not just an avocation. When you throw yourself into it as deeply as he does, all those things count a little bit more.
“So,” I ask again, “is it important for him to be recognized as the best player in the game?”
“Personally, I think it is,” said Jackson. “I think he wants to be recognized as the best player in the game. I think he wants to show that.”
I think he needs to.
“He knows it’s ephemeral,” said the coach. “He knows it doesn’t last.”
I’m not so sure. Mere brands are transient. But the great players are not. Their deeds become part of the permanent record, their reputations become minor histories.
And that’s no lie.