Saturday, October 31, 2009
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?