Kobe Bryant knows what a Game 7 victory would mean
Don't believe Kobe Bryant when he says this is not a big deal, that he doesn't get caught up in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, that this rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics means nothing to him, or that he's not concerned about his legacy. He is consumed by this moment, has been driven by this opportunity, perhaps, from the moment he held a basketball and decided that he was going to make this game his life.
It has been amusing to watch Bryant work the news conference podium at these Finals, fidgeting at his seat, left hand holding up his head, and angrily answering obvious questions with denials. He isn't concerned about going down as the greatest Laker ever. It doesn't matter if he wins a championship against the Celtics.
"What is everybody's fascination with the Celtics in terms of going down in history as -- it's a little weird to me," an agitated Bryant asked last Saturday.
Asked on Wednesday why he has been reluctant to plug into the history of this 51-year rivalry, Bryant said, "Ain't got nothing to do with me right now. It's got nothing to do with me. I look back, years from now or even when I was a kid, you talk about being in this situation and being excited. But when I'm in the moment right now, I've got to play. I've got to focus on that. I can't focus on the hype about it."
In some respects, Bryant is correct. He doesn't have to beat the Celtics Thursday to secure a spot among the all-time greats. He's already cemented his place in history and franchise lore, with four championship rings, a league's most valuable player award, an NBA Finals MVP and a spot atop the Lakers' all-time scoring list. But if he does win, Bryant is well aware of the implications.
Bryant went through a similar dance with denial last year against Orlando when he repeatedly said that winning a championship without Shaquille O'Neal meant nothing to him -- until he won it and finally let loose in an emotional post-championship news conference. He also denied the importance of winning the MVP -- until he finally claimed the award in 2008.
Bryant always wants more. Needs more. He has always been motivated to go down as the greatest, which is partly why he patterned his mannerisms and style after Michael Jordan early in his career. He's 12th on the all-time scoring list with 25,720 career points and should move into the top 10, possibly top six before the end of next season. It's unlikely that he can catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or even Karl Malone (he'd need more than 11,000 points, which would mean he'd have to play at his current level for about six more seasons -- or until he's 38), but surpassing Jordan (32,292) is a realistic possibility.
Bryant has already vanquished the other members his draft class (Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Jermaine O'Neal), demolished the other perimeter players in his age group (Grant Hill, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady), and is tied for most rings of his generation with Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan (although those guys have won three NBA Finals MVPs, compared to one for Bryant). But another championship would match him with Magic Johnson and move him within one of Jordan, considered the standard bearer and the greatest ever.
"It's not at the front of his mind," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, when asked if catching Johnson and eventually Jordan mattered to Bryant. "That's not what the big issue is. It's about his personality. It's about winning. And I think in retrospect, he's going to see that at some point."
Jackson then relayed a story about how Jerry West once told him about a conversation that he had with Bryant when Bryant asked West how he and Elgin Baylor were able to both average 30 points a game when it was difficult for him to average 20 points playing with Shaquille O'Neal.
"So, at that point in his career, 21, which was the age Kobe was at that time, he was very concerned about his mortality and how was going to look at it as a basketball player," Jackson said. "At this time, I don't think it's in the back of his mind that he has to catch Magic or he has to catch Michael or anything else. He wants to win. It's what the effort is worth for him to do what he has to go through to play this game."
I would lean heavier to first part of that Jackson quote. Bryant certainly has matured since then, and with O'Neal gone, he has overcome previous stumbles in his absence to understand what it took for him to lead a team to a championship. But he remains "concerned about his mortality" and he's been fortunate to have the talent, drive and determination to push himself into the conversation. His intensity makes it difficult for him to gain much pleasure in the process.
"You can't really enjoy the moment when you're in it, in terms of what's happening," Bryant said. "You've just got a job to do, you go out there and you do it, and then you can look back at it after the fact. But during, you've just got to go out there and do your job."
Win or lose, Bryant is the central character in this series, and this Game 7. He has already played too many "legacy-defining" games to get overdramatic with this one. But Bryant understands its importance. He knows what delivering at this stage would mean for his reputation and his desired perch among the all-time greats, even if he refuses to admit it.
"If I can look back at the end of my career and just say that I gave it my all every day, I'll be happy with that," Bryant said. "Whatever shakes out from that."
But he wants this moment. Needs this moment. Don't believe him for a minute that he doesn't.
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