Commentary

Move over, Magic; L.A. is Kobe's town

After Game 7 win over Boston Celtics, Bryant passes Magic as greatest Laker ever

Originally Published: June 18, 2010
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

LOS ANGELES -- I grew up idolizing Magic Johnson. Before he even got to the league, he stole my heart from Dr. J with alley-oop passes to Greg Kelser and by foiling Larry Bird in the historic 1979 NCAA title game.

He also put together the greatest single-game performance in NBA history. Not only did he stack up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals to lead the Lakers to the championship over Philadelphia, but there's so much else to consider: the stakes, his youth and inexperience, his switch from point guard to center, the quality and star power of the opponent (The Doctor), the quality and star power of his injured teammate (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). And he did it all as a 20-year-old rookie.

Although I believe Michael Jordan is the best to ever play the game, I've often stated that Magic is the one player you could argue was better because he's the only player in league history who could have played each of the five positions at an All-Star level.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Magic Johnson
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTime to pass the torch. Title No. 5 sealed Kobe's place atop L.A.

Magic, along with Bird, saved the NBA. Magic's charisma, Magic's smile, Magic's style made him so cool, so awesome, that you couldn't help but love him. To this day, he'll charm your socks off.

But I've got to be objective. I can't let my personal feelings get in the way. I can't let the fact that I watched Magic as a wide-eyed kid rather than as an adult who no longer idolizes basketball players affect the argument. I can't romanticize the past, making the heroes of my childhood larger than life, as we all have a tendency to do.

And when you take away those factors and subtract the off-the-court stuff -- the personalities, the cultural impact, the front-office brilliance (Jerry West) -- I'm faced with this conclusion: Kobe Bryant is the greatest Laker of them all.

After Kobe won his fifth title Thursday, Magic said on ESPN that Kobe deserves a statue next to his outside Staples Center. Later that night, Magic told me Kobe is now his equal, although not yet his superior.

"The great thing about the Lakers is that we judge by championships,'' said Magic, who -- along with Kareem, Kobe and crucial role player Derek Fisher -- has won a handful of rings with the Lakers. "So when Kobe gets that next one, then he'll be The Man; he'll be the greatest Laker. And I'll have no problem giving him that.''

In my heart, I agree with Magic, the starting point guard on my all-time first five. But when I judge Magic by the same standard that everyone in the post-MJ period is judged by, I have to, albeit grudgingly, put Kobe atop the Lakers pantheon.

Since Michael, superstars are judged by not only how many championships they win, but with whom they win them. One of the greatest arguments for Michael's supremacy is that, outside of Scottie Pippen, he built a dynasty with a roster full of role players (Dennis Rodman was a terrific one, to be sure, but still a role player). While guys like Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Bill Cartwright deserve respect, they weren't in the same class as the championship teammates of Magic and Bird.

So since Kobe came after Michael, he had to hear the "he's never won it without Shaq'' refrain earlier in his career. But Magic never heard "he never won it without Kareem.'' Bird never heard "he never won it without Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.''

In each of Magic's five championship seasons, he had a top-50 player of all time (Kareem). Granted, Kareem, although still a big-time scorer, was 38, 40 and 41 years old for the final three titles. But by then, Magic had been joined by another top-50 teammate in James Worthy, who played on the Lakers' 1985, 1987 and 1988 title teams. That's not to mention other great Magic teammates such as Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo.

Kobe obviously had an all-time superstar for his first three titles in Shaq. But for his past two rings, he's had nothing close. Pau Gasol is a perennial All-Star, but he's not going to make anyone's top 50. If he and Kobe continue winning rings together, though, he's got a shot at the Hall of Fame.

The significance of Kobe's ability to start from scratch and build a second mini-dynasty with the Lakers can't be overstated, and gives him an advantage over many all-time greats.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMagic could do a lot of spectacular things, but he couldn't play defense like Kobe.

As for the other Lakers greats, Wilt Chamberlain and West won only one ring apiece, despite playing together for four full seasons. Elgin Baylor never won a championship despite playing most of his career with West. Shaq, of course, won three rings in his eight Lakers seasons. And Kareem falls prey to the same argument as Magic (his team was stacked much higher than Kobe's); Kareem never won a ring without Magic or Oscar Robertson.

On top of the quality-of-teammates argument, Kobe beats Magic decisively on defense. Kobe has been a great defender, earning first-team All-Defensive honors eight times and second-team twice. Magic was never an all-league defender.

Personally, for all his scoring prowess, I don't think Kobe's offensive numbers stack up to Magic's. Magic averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field and 85 percent from the foul line. Kobe is a career 25-point scorer, but he's averaged only 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists on 45 percent shooting.

But when you factor in the defensive end, Kobe -- the better shooter and scorer -- comes out ahead of Magic as an all-around player.

While some might hold Kobe's subpar performance in Thursday's Game 7 against him, he still had 15 rebounds and found a way to score 23 points, mainly by hitting 11 of 15 foul shots. Plus, other immortals have struggled in big moments. Magic had so many flubs in the Lakers' 1984 loss to Boston, including dribbling out the clock at the end of regulation in Game 2, that he was being called "Tragic'' Johnson. And Michael shot 6-for-19 and 5-for-19 in two of Chicago's Finals games against Seattle in 1996.

Of course, Magic and his terrific teammates faced stiffer competition than Kobe has. The Celtics teams they battled were heavy in Hall of Famers, too. But in 1989, Magic's Lakers were swept by a Detroit Pistons team that featured only one top-50 player, 6-foot-1 Isiah Thomas, and had no great big men. I'd also argue the Celtics teams Kobe lost to in 2008 and defeated in 2010 were better than any of the clubs Jordan defeated in the Finals.

But that's the only thing I'm giving Kobe over Jordan. He's not Jordan's equal, and I don't think he ever can be, let alone overtake him as the G.O.A.T. Michael averaged 33.6 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists on 48 percent shooting while never losing a Finals series. He dominated every Finals he played in ways Kobe has not come close to doing.

But this isn't about Michael and Kobe; it's about Kobe and Magic, the two greatest Lakers ever. We can call them 1 and 1A. Just make sure Kobe is mentioned first.