By Mark F. Gray
To those who still want to pose the Kobe versus Michael Jordan question regarding who is the best player ever be advised that these NBA Finals are the defining moment in the Black Mamba’s career. As a lifetime Laker Bryant takes his place amongst the likes of Wilt Chamberlin, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West as players who have gotten to the NBA Finals and haven’t solved the mystery of the Boston Celtics.
Until he finds a way to slay that dragon Kobe can’t be considered the best player of all time. In fact he can’t even be considered the greatest Laker ever. No matter how many championships won if he doesn’t beat the Celtics that honor will be shared by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the pantheon of purple and gold.
Perhaps it is unfair but that’s just how it is for a lifetime Laker of Bryant’s stature. These are the two most storied franchises in the history of pro basketball. The Celtics and Lakers have combined to win 33 of the NBA’s 64 championships. However, when it comes to The Finals it has been nearly all Boston. The Celtics have won nine of the previous 11 series between the teams. Had it not been for Magic, Kareem, and Pat Riley during the mid-80’s the Celtics would still be pitching a shutout with the Larry O’Brien trophy on the line.
When you play for the Celtics and the Lakers you are defined by winning championships. There are no division, conference, or attendance championship banners hanging in the rafters of Staples Center or the new “Garden”. The Celtics have hung most of theirs at the expense of the Lakers much to the chagrin of their Hall of Fame wing that includes Chamberlain, West, and Baylor.
If you’re Kobe that’s a fraternity you would prefer not to be a part of. Each player has carved his niche in NBA lore but each looks back upon an illustrious career with an asterisk for not being able to defeat the Celtics for an NBA championship. Bryant enters these NBA Finals trying not to embrace past history but he now stands as another all time Laker great who hasn’t beat the Celtics when it counts the most.
This is bigger than being compared with Jordan as greatest player ever. While Jordan defined basketball in Chicago the Bulls were anything but a storied NBA franchise before he got there. They had never won a championship before him and were historically irrelevant. Its easier to make history where there is none as Jordan did.
Kobe, meanwhile, walks in the shadows of greatness. He is defined as much by winning championships as who he beats. Bryant’s scroll of titles comes at the expense of legendary franchises such as the Pacers, Nets, Cavaliers, and Magic who had been there before. For the record, against franchises with NBA titles Kobe is now 0-2 having lost to the Pistons in 2004 and the Celtics in 2008.
Four championships define Bryant as one of the all time greats. However, as a Laker Kobe is held to an altogether different standard. He will defined be the ghosts of the past. He has proven that he could win without Shaq but can he join the greatest duo in the history of the franchise by beating a long time nemesis. You can’t be the best player ever without being the greatest player in the history of your franchise.
Kareem and Magic earn that distinction with five titles – two against Boston. If Kobe doesn’t lead his team to victory over the Celtics his place will remain on a lower rung. Its not fair but that’s just how it is!