When he took the mic at Staples Center last month to introduce Kobe Bryant before the final game of his illustrious 20-year NBA career, Magic Johnson made his feelings known.
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"We are here to celebrate greatness, for 20 years," Johnson said. "Excellence, for 20 years. Kobe Bryant has never cheated the game. He has never cheated us as the fans. He's played through injuries, he's played hurt, and we have five championship banners to show for it. [...] He is not only a great and unbelievable sports icon, but also, he's the greatest to wear the purple and gold."
That assessment raised some eyebrows — there have, after all, been quite a number of legends to suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers over the years, including the one making the statement. But during a recent visit to ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Johnson held fast to his belief that Bryant's the greatest Laker ever:
"Yeah, he is," Johnson said. "I mean, when you think about what Kobe has achieved, you know, we both have five championships. He did it his way, with him dominating the scoring and really putting the team on his back, and I did it my way, with my leadership and really trying to make sure that I put our team in a position to win, and we did that. But at the end of the day, who cares whether it's him or I?"
"I care," Jimmy Kimmel cracked. "I care."
"But he has represented this city and the Laker organization as well as anybody could," Johnson replied. "[...] Again, it's all about winning, and both of us were about that. Our will to win was high. Now, we see these Lakers, and both of us can't stand that, so we're just hoping that we can get back."
There's certainly an argument to be made for Bryant, who just wrapped up 20 distinguished years as a Laker. Kobe tops the Lakers' record book in games and minutes played, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, steals and, of course, points. He was one of the greatest, most singularly focused and successful scorers in NBA history, and he piled up all those buckets, all those memories and all those rings wearing the purple-and-gold armor; to Lakers fans too young to remember Showtime, let alone the days of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe is the lakers. (Or, at least, he was.)
But Showtime did happen, and Magic was the fast-breaking, playmaking, franchise-shaking facilitator who helped reignite the Lakers, leading them to five NBA titles in nine years and nine Finals trips in a 12-year span. Magic's vision was unparalleled; his passing was infectious; his impact on the team, the league and the culture of basketball was nearly impossible to overstate. He was larger than life, on and off the court, and he, too, never wore another uniform.
You know who thinks Magic's the greatest Laker ever? Kobe:
"I refuse to believe it, because Magic is my hero. I don't think you guys truly understand how much of a die-hard fan I was. Like, a Laker fan. Like, dude, I just ... like, Magic was all over my wall. You know, I used to wear really big knee pads because Magic wore really big knee pads. I used to practice the baby hook. And so, he is and always will be No. 1 for me. Always. Always."
It's the kind of argument likely to be waged in living rooms and on barstools for decades, with reasonable arguments to be made for any of a number of legends in Laker lore — including, of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a five-time champion in purple and gold. (Magic excludes him from the debate, given that he spent the first five seasons of his career in Milwaukee, before including him as an exception as the greatest athlete in Los Angeles history, factoring in his star turn at UCLA.) Your answer may change; your mileage may vary.
What matters now, for the Lakers, is turning attention to the future, and to finding the next player worthy of carrying and building on that legacy of excellence in the years to come. With all due respect to D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, though, that might take some time. Even for a franchise as historically blessed as the Lakers have been, Magics and Kobes don't turn up every day.
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