Commentary

Kobe's legacy nearly complete

Bryant is always looking for a challenge, he's just running out of them

Updated: June 3, 2010, 7:18 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Kobe BryantRandy Belice/NBAE/Getty ImagesHe won't admit it. But, the 2008 NBA Finals embarrassment to the Celtics drives Kobe Bryant.

The list is narrowing these days.

After spending the last two decades becoming basketball's version of Showtime's "Dexter," hunting down the successes of players past and present and suffocating their accomplishments with his own unyielding will to show off the skills he was bestowed with, Kobe Bryant is running out of victims.

An NBA Finals win for the Los Angeles Lakers against their bitter rivals, the Boston Celtics, would give Bryant five championships for his career and slice down even further the number of names that lie ahead of him in the pantheon of greats.

He's spent a lifetime using his competitive fire to pass those who stood in his way. But rather than veer into the fast lane to avoid them, he's always preferred to just run them off the road.

It started early. When he was just 11 years old in Italy, he famously challenged Brian Shaw, who was playing overseas at the time, to a game of H-O-R-S-E -- and to this day claims he beat Shaw.

When Bryant and his family moved back to the United States a few years later, he had a new demographic to establish his dominance over. He'd become the best high school player in Philadelphia.


Donnie Carr was up first.

Carr was playing for Roman Catholic in Philadelphia's vaunted Catholic League. Bryant was playing for Lower Merion in the Central League, out in the suburbs. Carr outscored Bryant 34-30 when the two matched up in high school, Carr's team winning by six.

Carr won the battle, but Bryant won the war, moving on to to stiffer competition when John Lucas, then the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, recognized his talents and invited him to start working out with his players.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyThis story of domination began in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

"People used to get mad at me in Philly," Lucas recalled. "I'd say, 'Donnie Carr is a good player, but he's not on the same level as Kobe Bryant.'"

Bryant moved on from Carr and set his sights on becoming the best player in the city. Period. Prep or pro.

"Kobe's mindset was that of a fierce competitor," Lucas said. "I tell people all the time, when Vernon Maxwell was playing [for the Sixers], he was 'Mad Max' at the time; he [Kobe] and Mad Max almost got in a fight arguing over a 9-9 point in a pickup game. He was junior year in high school then."

Maxwell was 29 years old at the time, an eight-year NBA veteran with two championship rings from his days playing with the Houston Rockets. Bryant was only 16, barely half Maxwell's age, but of course wasn't willing to concede the point in a pickup game.

When you conquer a city, you move on to something bigger. Say, a country. Bryant would have to become the best high school player in America.

"I remember I had a really powerful conversation with Kobe," said Gregg Downer, Bryant's coach at Lower Merion High School. "I said: Maybe you're amongst 100 people -- you want to shave that to 50, you want to shave that to 25, and ultimately it was our goal when he was in high school to shave it all the way to No. 1."

Bryant became a McDonald's All-American and has made mockeries of the careers of some of his fellow honored prep stars of the past like Tim Thomas, Loren Woods and Corey Benjamin.


Think about how many separate societies Bryant has risen to the top of in his time. Think about how many classifications he's conquered.

Best player in his family? His mother Pam's brother, John "Chubby" Cox, played just seven games with Washington in 1982, scoring just 29 total points for his career. Kobe has scored 30 points in a single quarter. Twice. Kobe's father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, enjoyed modest NBA success (career averages of 8.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists) with Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston before playing professionally in Europe. But those numbers pale in comparison to Bryant's 25.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists for his career.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe immediate goal for Kobe Bryant is getting his thumb sized for a championship ring.

Best guard on the Lakers? It didn't take very long for the franchise's focus to shift from Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones in the backcourt to Bryant after he arrived in L.A. in 1996.

Best player on the Lakers? When owner Jerry Buss decided to keep Kobe and ship out Shaquille O'Neal in 2004, that title became solidified.

Best Lakers player of all time? Bryant passed Jerry West to become the franchise's all-time leading scorer this season and can tie Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper in rings (all three won one for the thumb). Bryant has a chance to win back-to-back championships with seven years of holding down the franchise almost single-handedly in between them.

Best wing player of his era? He left Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter in his dust.

Best player of the heralded 1996 draft? Allen Iverson is retired, whether he'll admit to it or not. Stephon Marbury is in China. Shareef Abdur-Rahim is coaching. Antoine Walker is broke. Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Jermaine O'Neal and Peja Stojakovic are still playing, but combined have just one ring between them, Allen's from the 2008 Finals.

Best scorer of his time? Iverson and McGrady didn't have nearly the same longevity Bryant has had, and their career high games were 60 and 62, or 75 percent as impressive as Bryant's 81.

Best player at any position of his era? Would you take O'Neal or Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett over him if you had to win one game?

Better than all the so-called Kobe stoppers? Please. Where are Ruben Patterson, Raja Bell, Doug Christie, Chris Childs and Bruce Bowen these days?

Better than his up-and-coming contemporaries? LeBron James has played seven years and has two MVPs but just one Finals appearance and no titles. Dwyane Wade has one ring but hasn't gotten out of the first round since then. Carmelo Anthony hasn't even been to the Finals. This is Bryant's seventh trip in 14 years, meaning he plays for the title about as often as a new Harry Potter movie comes out.

"I think Kobe has already kind of solidified his own legacy," Garnett said Wednesday, a day before Game 1 of the Finals. "Obviously, he's trying to add on to it, the rest of us are trying to do the same, but for him himself, I think he's already solidified, to be honest."


And yet if Bryant felt solidified, satisfied, then complacency should be creeping in. Not Bryant. Teammate Josh Powell said he would meet Bryant at the gym last offseason, sometimes as early as 4 or 5 in the morning, to prepare for another title run.

"With a guy like that, it's just amazing," Powell said. "The competitiveness, his energy level, he just has a mentality to kill, so to speak."

Bryant was asked about his drive to be known as the best player in the league this weekend and said, "I don't care," but ask anybody else who knows him, they'll tell you that answer is about as genuine as one of the exaggerated pump fakes he uses to free up space to fire a jumper.

"I know one thing about him," Powell said. "He wants to be better. He wants to be the greatest, hands down."

Shannon Brown, who grew up watching Phil Jackson coach Michael Jordan for his hometown Chicago Bulls, is now observing greatness next to him in the huddle rather than just through his TV screen.

"Being able to actually play with Kob, I can see that he wants all of it," Brown said. "He wants that, plus more. He wants a statue outside. He wants everyone to remember him as a tenacious killer, a person that stepped out onto the court and took no prisoners."

While his new teammates know his killing mentality, those who have been around him even longer, Derek Fisher and Jackson, know the premeditated nature of his annihilation existence.

"I never saw the plan," said Fisher, who came into rookie camp with Bryant before he had any of the 12 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA teams or 10 All-Defensive teams. "I don't know if it's on paper anywhere or in a safe in the house, but it's just something I picked up on. I can't even say that it was from a direct conversation. It's just a feeling that I had and have ... that he has for a very long time seen his abilities and the things he's capable of doing as a way and an opportunity to be the best player to ever play the game. One of them, at least."

Said Jackson: "He devotes so much of his life to this game. It really does take an inordinate amount of time in his daily life; it's not a pastime to him. This is a devotion, not just an avocation. When you do that, when you throw yourself as deeply into it as he does, all those things count a little more.

"I think he wants to be recognized as the best player in the game. I think he wants to show, he knows it's ephemeral, that this does not last."


[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan and Kobe Bryant
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesWhen it's all said and done, there may be room at the top of the totem pole for Kobe Bryant.

Legacy lasts.

Nobody remembers who finished second, but come in first enough times and you become unforgettable.

Only a few remain in front of Bryant. He's caught up with many more: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Magic, Kareem, Julius Erving; Bryant's name now belongs alongside them in every conversation about the greatest basketball player of all time. That's what Kobe Bryant's playing for now.

Although he wouldn't mind leapfrogging all of them to make the top of the totem pole a tag team.

"I think he's kind of privately tracking Jordan's six championships and all of the challenges to kind of get in that top discussion," Downer said, letting the cat out of the bag.

Without any prompt, Paul Pierce put Jordan and Bryant in the same breath Wednesday.

"Once you master the mental part of the game, you become a master of the game of basketball," Pierce said. "There's only been one master in basketball ever, and that's Michael Jordan, but Kobe is pretty close."

Lucas arranged for the master to meet his apprentice, back when Carr and all the rest of them had yet to be crossed off Bryant's list.

"I'll never forget I introduced him to Michael, and he called him 'Mr. Jordan,'" Lucas said. "After Michael left, I told [Kobe] -- I teased him, I said, 'If you're going to come into the league next year, he better be 'Mike.'"

As for Kobe? Call him ruthless. Call him driven. Call him the conqueror.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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