Saturday, October 31, 2009

One Man's Legacy

Ever since Kobe Bean Bryant arrived in the National Basketball Association as a precocious young phenom, there have been enduring themes to his career which have gotten continous play on ESPN, SI, and the like. The love/hate relationship with the fans, the comparisons to Michael Jordan, and the whispers of Kobe's awkwardness are just a sample of this seemingly complicated man's life. Another theme that has continued in his now storied career is the potential for greatness, and if he would ever harness that potential and turn it into reality. Some wanted him to fail, some wanted him to succeed, but we all wanted to see exactly where this cocky kid would end up. We are now getting a look at the homestretch of Bryant's career - and it is a glimpse of what we had always hoped for (or against).

When Kobe, at the tender of age 23, was in the middle of the Dynasty Years with Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson was asked how many rings Kobe could retire with. Magic, who is no slouch with 5 championships under his belt, was thoughtful for a moment, his eyes glancing towards the roof, perhaps thinking back to his days as young star with endless posibilites. He settled on 2 staggering numbers for Kobe's ring potential - 9 or 10. At that time, Magic Johnson, one of the greatest who ever lived, predicted that Kobe would finish his career with 3 more rings than Michael - at least. Quite amazing praise when you think about where Kobe's career has gone since then - the twists, turns; highs and lows.

Kobe is now 30 - a wily NBA veteran. He is no longer electrically athletic phenom he was in the first act of his career, nor the selfish gunner in his second act. In The Third Act of Kobe he has now entered a sort of post-retirement Jordan phase: using his brains and basketball wizardry more than pure athletics to beat the competition. When Kobe has the ball on the elbow with one defender guarding him, for pure basketball fans, there may not be a prettier thing to watch. The assortment of jabs, fakes, and moves he will use is hypnotizing. It seems as though with every move he is setting the defender up for the final blow. He gets the defenders hips and feet moving in all directions, hands low, hands high, lunging forward, falling back. If LeBron's power drives to the hoop are simple checkers - all athletic ability, not so much artistry, then Kobe is playing chess - and he is a Grandmaster.

Last summer Bryant got his symbolic fourth ring - his first without Shaq. The Lakers then added Ron Artest and let go of Trevor Ariza, presumably reloading for a run at a fifth Kobe championship. The negativity that plagued Kobe during his Second Act - the rape charges, falling out of favor with Nike, losing endorsments, becoming Black Mamba, derision as selfish and a poor teammate - have all but disappeared. The questions we used to ask, way back when he was a young stud on a three-peating Lakers squad, are back: how many rings can Kobe now win? Can the Lakers repeat? Three-peat? Is he one of the greatest of all-time? The questions that had seemingly disappeared for 7 years. If leading the USA to Olympic Gold back in 2008 had brought mainstream America's love affair with Kobe fullcircle, a fourth title sent him to heights uncharted in his career. The question is: what would a fifth title do for the legacy of Kobe?

Will Bryant fulfill his potential, nab 6-8 rings and retire as a top 5 of all time (note: in my opinion, Bryant is top 10 right now)? My answer is this: Bryant will retire with 6 rings. I think this Lakers team is built for another mini-dynasty with Bryant and Gasol starring, Odom and Artest as supporting players, and Bynum as the X-factor who will be better than anyone realize next year. Another 3-peat? Probably not - but 3 titles in 5 years? Maybe so.

1 comment:

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