sportstapas
A little dishing on sports

The Magic Hour

I feel like I’ve been posting exclusively on LeBron James for the longest period of time.  If only there was a way for me to verify that.  Anyway, while LeBron is deciding whether it really is better in the Bahamas, his West Coast rival, Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, is preparing to renew hostilities with the hated Boston Celtics.  I’ve been making the case Kobe’s playoff heroics and LeBron’s subpar 2010 performances notwithstanding, LeBron is still the best player in the NBA.  I stand by that.  It seems really simple to me, actually.  Kobe, great as he is, has spent most of his career playing with at least one elite teammate, and he’s taken full advantage of that.  During the one stretch when Kobe did not have a top 20 teammate, his teams were either summarily dismissed from the playoffs or failed to make them at all.  By contrast, LeBron has never played with a great teammate.  Shaq is obviously on the downside, as his Antawn Jamison, so Mo Williams is the best he’s ever played with and if that continues to be the case it would be a tragedy.  Even with that, LeBron has made the Finals and made another appearance in the conference finals.  Remarkable.  Beyond that, the array of skills LeBron has…

I write today, though, not to extol the virtues of LeBron, but rather, to offer an appreciation for the 14 year career of Kobe Bean Bryant.  Three weeks ago, Kobe was hobbling around the court like he’d just stumbled out of Annie Wilkes’s house.  He looked tired and a bit old.  He wasn’t elevating; he was missing shots Kobe normally makes; he was laboring.   Then he got his knee drained.  Ruh-roh!

Against Utah, and especially against Phoenix, Kobe offered virtuoso performances.  He is that rarest of players who plays as hard as you can imagine anyone playing all game and then when the stakes get higher, Kobe manages, somehow, to raise his effort and performance a notch.  He is currently playing the game of basketball at a remarkably high level, even for him.  It has become routine to watch Kobe take and make clutch shots under the most difficult of circumstances, but the shot he hit late in game 6 against Phoenix, over that perfect double team, was one for the ages.   When we talk about the great clutch performers in the last 30 years of the NBA, Kobe Bryant’s name justifiably stands next to the likes of Bird, Jordan and Miller.  His body of work in that regard stands with the very best.

What I have long resisted is this idea that Kobe’s overall greatness as a player has reached the level of the game’s royalty.  Michael.  Magic.  Larry.  Kareem.  And while I would still I am no entirely sure Kobe has quite reached that rarefied air, I have to concede at this point, that it’s a worthy discussion.  At the very least, he’s eye to eye with Tim Duncan.

Kobe had a very successful run as a second banana to Shaq between 1996 and 2004.  He won three titles, made the Finals on one other occasion.  He set himself up to be in consideration among the all-time greats.  Then he and Shaq killed the goose that laid the golden egg, resulting in Shaq’s departure, with many, including myself putting most of the blame on Kobe.  He feuded with Karl Malone, then there was Colorado, then he yelled to a fan (who happened to be taping him) that the Lakers needed to do more to get better, including trading Andrew Bynum.  He came across as the selfish, immature brat many of us always thought he was and we, at least I, dismissed him, especially when he couldn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs, failing to make the playoffs at all on one occasion.

Then he got Pau Gasol, the best big man in the game according to Jeff Van Gundy and Act Three had begun.  The Lakers raced to the 2008 Finals, looking unbeatable before imploding in the final two games, diminishing Kobe once again.  But the guy just won’t go away.  He won the title last year and is back in the Finals again this year – his 7th trip and now I can no longer deny that Kobe Bryant is one of the ten best players in NBA history.

Here’s the list of players who have been the #1 or #2 guy on seven or more conference champions in the last 40 years:

Kareem — 7

Magic — 9

Kobe – 7

If Kobe’s Lakers win the championship this year, it will give him 5 titles, tying Magic and leaving only Kareem, Jordan and Pippen ahead of him among superstars over the last 40 years.  As it is, he’s tied with Shaq and Duncan with four rings.

Whatever happens in his career from here on out, there is no denying that Kobe Bryant resides in the pantheon of great NBA players.  I can only quote Allen Iverson, who upon running into Kobe at a mall days after Bryant’s 81 point explosion said, “You a bad Mother Tucker.”

Okay, I’m paraphrasing.

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