Wednesday, June 03, 2009

We Will Know #2: Kobe

NOTE: This is #2 of 3 in a mini-series of craptacular musings on the NBA Finals. There was a tangent about Kobe restoring equilibrium to the business of professional basketball, but it was lost somewhere in the ether.

Kobe Bryant has three NBA Championship rings. He won all of them with Shaq. We know all about this.

He's also the guy who has become the inspiration for the generation of NBA superstars that followed him. Much like Micheal Jordan was.

Mike mesmerized all his little basketball-dunking brothers with what happened during the games. Most of them emulated the style of game his gifts enabled him to play, but very few took pains to understand the work that took place off the court to enable Mike to perform those daring feats on it. They wanted the reward and had no interest in the risk. Mike, more or less, encouraged that while his playing career remained active.

Kobe was one of the few to get it. He got all of it. He knew that everything that took place after the final buzzer sounded on one game, one season, one championship was just as important as all that would take place between the lines once the next buzzer sounded to signify the start of the next game, next season are supposed to bring home the championship, right? Where everyone else wanted to be like Mike, Kobe simply became Mike. Mostly.

In Mike's case, the generation that came after him was kept aloof on purpose. Mike didn't want them to learn his secrets because he didn't want them to beat him. And none of them did.

Kobe, on the other hand, almost needed all of his hoop siblings to know what he went through in order to be great. It was as if it weren't enough to satisfy his ego that they acknowledged him as a great player, he needed them to recognize him as an equally great preparer.

Probably because Kobe knew early on that he would never achieve Mike's exalted social status. Kobe doesn't have Mike's charisma. Nor does he have the benefit of landing on the NBA's moon first. Mike's flag was already there. But this is an aside.

This spring, we've heard so much about how Kobe's example during the Olympics inspired LeBron and Carmelo, among others. This is all true. There's no mistaking the difference in focus and preparation of the post-Kobe generation pre-Olympics and post-Olympics.

The result of Kobe sharing all--or nearly all--of his trade secrets has been that he's accidentally set himself up to be a Joe Frazier cutting stone for a generation of Muhammad Alis. Kobe has already bested two of the next generation's brightest hopes (D Will and 'Melo). Had the Cavs made the Finals, obviously, LeBron would have had the prime opportunity to get his Ali on. But he's didn't. D Howard has, though. And he's certainly playing like he thinks the crown fits him.

Most importantly, what each of those players has in common is that they're all entering their primes with a certain ferocity informing their play. To a great degree, they have Kobe to thank for that. And how will they thank him? By taking turns kicking the crap out of him every spring until Kobe retires? It's quite possible (particularly if you believe Bill Simmons) that this next series represents Kobe's last best hope to win a championship.

If that's the case and he loses, then how does history remember him? He won three championships. Sure. But he also lost three championships. How does that .500 record in the Finals inform his legacy?

If there's anyone on earth who ponders that question, it is Kobe Bryant. It has to be eating at him. It has to be driving him. It IS driving him. If you saw game 5 of the Nuggets series, that much is obvious.

Kobe is on the verge. Perhaps for the last time. Perhaps not. We really don't know. And neither does Kobe.

But we will know whether he'll snatch a fourth ring from history's jewelery box or not. And we will know that in 7 games or less.

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