When news broke that Los Angeles guard Kobe Bryant had torn his Achilles the natural question was to wonder if he would ever play again. While Kobe naturally assured reporters he would be back, at 34 and over 50,000 total minutes on his legs, questions about him ever playing again are legit. But before we go any further I feel it is only fair to state this. Kobe Bryant is my favorite all-time athlete. We all have that one athlete that we identify with growing up and for whatever reason, Kobe was mine. You may choose to stop reading now because you naturally feel I hold little objectivity about Kobe but I think you would be mistaken to do so. In an odd way, I feel that my fascination and love for the Black Mamba allows me to perhaps provide the realest point of view and take on Kobe because I am able to understand his flaws and short comings along with the greatness he displays. Despite that greatness, his season came to an abrupt end last night due to injury. Noting even before the torn Achilles that next season will be his last in the NBA, I feel it is worth examining. What will ultimately be Kobe’s legacy?
The Shaq Shadow/Poor Teammate
We’ve all heard it before. “Man, Kobe wouldn’t even have 3 of his rings if it wasn’t for Shaq!” Shaquille O’Neal was one of the most dominating big men in NBA history and spent a good portion of his career in LA being the main cog to 3 straight NBA Championships. and being the Finals MVP in each one. Averaging 26.9 ppg and 11.7 rbs, Shaq was the most dominant force in the league over his 8 years in LA. But Shaq was so dominant, that it seemed to become some short of shadow over this stretch of Kobe’s career in a majority of the sports world eyes. As if Kobe’s role in the 3-peat can be tossed aside as irrelevant and he played no major role. Also with the feud that ultimately morphed and came to the forefront over the years, Kobe’s chemistry with teammates and the notion of him being a ball hog have followed him to this very day.
What is fascinating about this aspect of Kobe’s legacy is your point of view. Because in my eyes, what all-time great won Championships without another all-time great? Magic never won without Kareem, but is never over-shadowed by Kareem when you talk about his career. Jordan never won a ring without Pippen, who was named to be one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. Yet when we talk Jordan, it would be blasphemous to consider Pippen being the main reason he won championships. LeBron James was forced to team up with Dwayne Wade (a top 5 player in the NBA) and Chris Bosh (arguably top 20-15 player in NBA) to finally win a Championship, but it is already clear that history will not hold that against him in the way history holds Shaq against Kobe. Is it because of how dominating Shaq was? Or is it because of the way the two ended (mired in off the court controversy that cost that duo multiple future championships)? I’m not sure but the shadow is there for some odd reason, despite the fact that Kobe went on to win 2 titles without Shaq.
Elite Scorer/Jordan Comparisons
Once dropping 81 points in a game, if there is a synonym to ‘scorer’ in the dictionary Kobe’s name is probably included in the list. Averaging a career 25.5 ppg and peaking at a 35.4 per game clip back in 2006, scoring was and has always been the name of the game for Kobe. Ranking fourth all-time in the NBA in points, Bryant was a classic volume shooter. In my own opinion I think he will go down as the best ‘tough shot maker’ in league history. Typically taking no notice of the defense played on him, he had the green light to pull from almost anywhere on the court. Worth noting though, this sometimes came to the detriment of the team. Even Kobe admitted to teammate Antwan Jamison, that he can become so singularly focused on scoring that it can come at the expense of his passing.
I think we all know Kobe’s legacy is also intertwined with another all-time great. The Michael Jordan comparisons have followed Bryant since he stepped into the league, and his on the court play has only fueled the fire. Having eerily similar games, Kobe’s play-style on the court has led many to call him a ‘carbon copy Jordan’ or ‘Jordan-Lite’ if you will. Whether you dislike him for stealing bits of Jordan’s game, or applaud him for being the best since Jordan, I think it is clear that Bryant came up short in chasing Jordan. Trailing by one in the all important ring discussion (5 to 6), Jordan also holds a 5 to 1 MVP edge and a 6 to 2 Finals MVP distinction. For all of the comparisons that will come up when Kobe finally does call it quits, I think that despite what he does from here on in his career he will always find himself in second when the two are discussed.
Will to Win/Rank Among all-time Greats
I don’t believe that I am going to far out on a limb when I say that I believe when it came to will to win and overall heart, Kobe is second to none. From his off the court preparation, to the hours he put in on the practice court, to the numerous injuries he played through, I’m not sure you could make a valid case that there is anyone else in NBA history who wanted to win more than Bryant. Even if you just look at this season alone, 17 years in he had averaged 45 minutes per game over the Lakers last 6 while attempting to lead his team to the final playoff spot. Playing 7 straight quarters in the last two games combined before finally crumpling to the ground in pain at the reported probable Achilles tear. If there was ever an example of ‘leaving it all on the court’, I think these last few sequences of games for Kobe fits the bill perfectly. Hell, you could even see the tears in his eyes as he talked with the media knowing that his season is now over.
I think when you look at the totality of Kobe’s work in the NBA, his spot as a top-10 all-time player is safely secured. When you start talking specifics these types of things are always opinionated. I had Bryant at #8 all-time before the beginning of the season and I think it is plausible for me to move him ahead of Shaq to 7th all-time now. Where will he ultimately end up? I’m not sure. I believe that we will see Kobe on the court again. Despite the devastating injury and years of tread on his tires, I ultimately think that fire-like will to win will get the Black Mamba through this. How much longer he plays though? Again, I have no concrete answer. Nobody knows but Kobe and perhaps that timetable has drastically shifted after last night. But with one year left on his contract I think the time to appreciate his legacy and place in history is now. And if you’re true NBA fan, perhaps thank him for all of the memories. I know I will.