Kobe measures well against history's greats
LOS ANGELES – Maybe five titles, six – maybe a seventh – will never matter. Maybe they'll never see Kobe Bryant(notes) as the greatest Los Angeles Laker. The smile, the wink, the charm of Magic Johnson so hard to overtake. Magic was Magic, and Kobe's never bothered to try and be him.
They come to Bryant wanting him to play along, tell tales about his connection to the Big '80s, about how he sees himself in the context of Magic and Bird, West and Russell. They want something sentimental out of a cold-blooded basketball assassin. Trouble is, Kobe isn't sentimental. He's surgical.
"It's got nothing to do with me," Bryant insisted.
For some, this is a complete affront. Somehow, he's disrespecting the history of this rivalry, the forbearers of modern NBA popularity. Still, Bryant doesn't blink. Maybe you don't love this about him, but you have to admire it: He won't be a phony. He won't play make-believe the way so many peers would ingratiate themselves. He won't smile and nod and go on and on about a contextual connection to history.
Deep down, Bryant does care. He's a student of the sport's history. He knows these Lakers listen to his every word and knows they can barely handle the burden of this series – never mind its weighty history. Still, Bryant has never wanted to be Magic Johnson. He's never tried. He couldn't be, and he always knew that about himself.
This is a sport where everyone wants to be loved and popular and be the brightest light when they walk into the room. Kobe has never tried to win popularity contests, just championships. Just respect. Perhaps Magic will always be considered the greatest Laker. Maybe the romance of the '80s, the greatness of basketball's most magnificent point guard, can never be matched in these far more cynical, more knowing times. And perhaps Michael Jordan will stay the greatest player of all.
For Bryant, there's this: Whatever you want to believe, no one's ever been more relentless. No one. He came out of high school, out of Shaq's shadow, and kept coming and coming and coming. LeBron tried to overtake him. Dwyane Wade(notes), too. He wears everyone down. That's his greatest gift. He does it to opponents and teammates, too. You'll never outlast Kobe Bryant.
Here's the thing, though: With a victory over the Celtics, Bryant makes his case as the greatest Laker ever. Winning multiple titles is more difficult in this era because the salary cap makes it so much harder to keep great teams together. Magic and Michael will always hold those MVP trophies over Bryant, but those were as much a base of timing as talent. When it comes to the title of greatest Laker, everyone should understand winning championships is tougher now.
You have to love that Bryant refuses to campaign for the title. He won't play the easy game of pushing himself into the context of all that history, all the nostalgia. The world is watching him now, and he won't put on a fake smile and play along with all the storylines that are irrelevant to him. He still isn't trying to win the popularity contest. Just another title.
This isn't sentimental to Kobe Bryant, just surgical. That's him, and that never changes. Not for Magic Johnson. Not for the Celtics. Not for anything. To the end, Kobe is Kobe.