The “greatest” label stalks superstar athletes, no matter how much they try to give it the slip. Meanwhile, fans and media throw it around often in an effort to put their heroes in context. Not everybody can be the “greatest,” and competition for the moniker is cutthroat.
As the 2010 NBA playoffs unfold, Kobe Bryant faces his “greatest” challenge, although it figures to continue even if he wins another ring. Forget greatest ever; fighting the entrenched Michael Jordan establishment seems futile. But the watering holes in and around Los Angeles, as well as far-flung regions that are of like minds, often buzz with the question:
Is Kobe Bryant the greatest Laker ever?
The vote here is no, although I’m willing to entertain barroom arguments, especially if I don’t have to pay the tab. Kobe is certainly on that short list, or A-list, or short A-list, of the greatest Lakers. And at 31 he has some career left, so it’s conceivable that between now and his retirement, he may not only pull out in front, but also put some distance between himself and the other purple-and-gold legends, such as Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
But as of right now, he has some work to do.
To be considered “the greatest Laker ever,” Kobe would have to make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson fight over second place. That’s not going to happen.
Even though he is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387), he was no ball hog. Kareem was much more of a team player than pundits give him credit for. He was an excellent passer and was particularly adept at delivering the ball to cutters to the basket. He is also ninth all-time in blocks per game (2.57) and is 24th in rebounds per game (11.2), ahead of guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett.
Most important of all, Kareem was as clutch as Kobe. Kareem’s heroics don’t resonate as intensely over time as those of Kobe because Kareem had to share the spotlight at various times with Magic, Norm Nixon, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper (not to mention coach Pat Riley), whereas Kobe has for the most part had the marquee to himself. Even when he and Shaq were teammates, that was it in terms of star power; the rest of the players on the teams that won three straight titles beginning in 2000 were role players, albeit superior ones.
But Kareem hit pressure-packed shot after pressure-packed shot during the course of his Lakers career. He was the Captain, and as such he led both by example and through the occasional sagacious utterance.
Magic needs no introduction. He helped lead the Lakers to five titles in the ’80s. He could play all five positions if he had to. His rings came during an Ali-Frazier period for the NBA: the Lakers and Boston Celtics were equals, juggernauts, heavyweight champions. Magic had to navigate his team through tougher competition than Kobe.
And not to dredge up the past, but Kobe has had many sour moments with teammates and management, whereas Magic — aside from the Paul Westhead insurrection, which would have happened anyway, whether Magic led it or not — was never a problem child.
For Kobe to someday become known as the greatest Laker ever, he would first have to win two more championships for a total of six. All barroom debates about “greatest” start with rings.
But in Kobe’s case, it’s more than that. He was once known as a selfish player, a brat, a blaster of management. Most of that is in the past, yet some of the old knocks on him linger.
The one he needs to erase concerns his status as a team player. His heart, his competitive spirit, his work ethic are beyond question. He wants to win as much as Magic and Kareem. He wants to win as much as Jordan. And he has the guts, the ice-water veins at crunch time, the killer instinct, to get it done.
What he doesn’t do as well as Kareem or Magic is make his teammates better. In the judgment department, he is a distant third to those two. He still would rather take the high-degree-of-difficulty fall-away jumper against two defenders than pass the ball. He still comes down court and impulsively jacks up a shot when it would be more sensible to wait for his teammates and work for the best shot possible.
He is capable of astonishing feats. Unfortunately, that causes him to attempt astonishing feats more often than he should. Make no mistake, Kareem and Magic had huge egos. But they never let them interfere with sound thinking on the court. I can’t say the same for Kobe.
He’ll either have to correct that, or he’ll have to win seven or eight or nine championships to put himself in such rarefied air that the discussion becomes moot.
Y! Sports: For Roy Hibbert, a sense of ownership means knowing he should have fought to get in the game with two seconds remaining in overtime, when his absence allowed LeBron James to hit the winning lay-up.
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