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Vince Thomas

Evan Gole/NBAE via Getty Images

Kobe, by winning a fifth ring, now fully his own man

Posted Jun 22 2010 12:03PM

Did you know that Tim Duncan -- the man that many consider the best player of the 2000s and the greatest power forward of all time -- averaged just 15 points a game in Games 3 and 4 of the 2005 Finals on 10-for-32 shooting? In the decisive Game 7, he went 10-for-27.

Do you remember that or do you remember that he won Finals MVP and his third ring? Do you remember that Duncan also went a combined 10-of-32 in the last two games of the 2007 Finals or do you remember that it was his fourth ring?

What about the deity that is Michael Jordan? In 1998 we remember the three-peat and the game-winner in Game 6. We have forgotten, however, that in Game 5, at home with a chance to close out the Jazz, MJ shot 9-of-26, with four turnovers. We also don't remember that in the previous series against the Pacers, Jordan was just 9-for-25 in Game 7. We remember only the Bulls won and advanced to the Finals.

Do we remember that Jordan was 5-of-19, with five turnovers, in the decisive Game 6 of the 1996 Finals? Nope. We remember that the Bulls won the championship, despite MJ's performance.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West -- we can do this for just about every "greatest of the greats" in NBA history. Throughout their careers there will be pivotal games in which great players played, uncharacteristically, like hot garbage. In the end, we rightfully remember the ultimate triumph.

I bring this up because of the ridiculous reaction to Kobe Bryant's Game 7 where he shot 25 percent and turned the ball over four times. For most of the game, scathing criticism was warranted. I even tweeted that he was playing like Ruben Patterson.

But once the end-of-game buzzer sounded and Kobe had won his fifth ring, the pile-on continued, with some going so far as to say his Game 7 performance tainted his fifth ring and, thus, his legacy -- as if we'd look back on his career and put an asterisk by this one. That's outrageous. It's primarily outrageous because the Lakers won the championship, primarily because of Kobe's 23-game performance that was quintessentially MVP. It's also outrageous because history shows us that, as humans and sports fans, time dulls the details. We remember Jerry West as "The Logo," not the loser of eight of nine Finals series.

Of course, we tend to play by different rules with Kobe. While some were panting to diminish Kobe's part in winning his fifth ring, others were ready to forearm shiver Old Man Magic Johnson to the side -- the player with the statue outside Staples Center -- and anoint Kobe the "greatest Laker of all-time."

Sorry, kids, but, unless Kobe wins, like, three more titles, he won't be a "greater" Laker than Magic. But, as has basically always been the case, Kobe-hate and Kobe-love has always resembled hysteria. The sober take on Kobe's career is this: He's greater than all but a handful of the greatest players to ever bounce a basketball. He officially reached this point -- FOR GOOD -- last week.

Five years from now we will probably look back at these 2010 Finals as a turning point for Kobe, the moment when his legacy was not only cemented, but when it truly became his own. The first, say, seven years of Kobe's career he was rarely just "Kobe" -- he was either "Kobe, the next Jordan" or "Shaq and Kobe." And, then, he spent a good five years fending off "you ruined 'Shaq and Kobe'" and/or "you'll never be MJ" salt. He kicked Shaq's shadow and the "you'll never win without Shaq" disrespect last season with his fourth ring. Now, with his fifth, he's driving in a lane parallel to MJ.

And it's not just the ring count. It's more than that. MJ was MJ. Kobe is Kobe. Take a second and really watch/monitor Kobe, these days. Young Kobe stuck out his tongue on drives. That's gone. Young Kobe talked -- tone, cadence, everything -- exactly like Mike. No more. Young Kobe tried to act like Mike. These days, Kobe's wry, twinkly-eyed haughtiness is as unique a personality as there is in the NBA.

And check his walk. Kobe used to even mimic MJ's gait. But sometime over the past two years -- as evidenced in his probably staged, stoic pregame-intro swagger -- he even changed his walk. He is his own man. If you're still assessing Kobe's career within some "next Jordan" context, then you're not only missing the cues, you're missing the point and, more importantly, you're missing out. You're missing out on witnessing and appreciating, in real time, one of the singularly greatest careers in professional sports history. We're talking 15 year, five championship, multi MVP, Olympic gold medal greatness.

Kobe is now the leader and uber-star of this dynasty (yep, three consecutive trips to the Finals and back-to-back titles makes these Lakers a dynasty). And this is about the 10th June in-a-row where "Kobe" is either the consensus or practical answer to "Who's the best basketball player on the planet?" Nothing about his Game 7 performance impacts his legacy. Other than the fact he won.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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