Basketball is one of those rare professions where at an age like 37, people talk about you like you are 80.
In some ways, an older player does resemble a senior citizen. Compared to his peers, he’s not as fast, can’t jump as high, is not as agile and doesn’t shoot as straight as he once did.
But we found another connection between old basketball age and old age Sunday night after the Lakers lost to the Bulls in Kobe Bryant’s final game in Chicago. We found the basketball equivalent of memory loss.
It came from Mr. Bryant, who reflected on the failed relationship with Shaquille O’Neal that led to O’Neal being traded after the two had combined to win three championships.
“It was always the challenge of, ‘Kobe can’t win without Shaq,’ right?” Bryant said after scoring 22 points in the Lakers’ 126-115 loss to the Bulls. “If I had went my whole career and we had won championships, God bless you guys [reporters], but guys would be saying at the Hall of Fame, ‘He won with Shaq.’ I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to hear it, because I knew I had the determination to do it ,and it was either sink or swim. At some point I was going to take that challenge and it was either you guys are right or I’m right. I had to take that challenge.”
On behalf of the very large legion of Kobe proponents/apologists – and I am a card-carrying member – I have to admit: I’m hurt.
You mean, we would not have been able to fully recognize, appreciate and evaluate the greatness that Kobe demonstrated throughout his career? I don’t believe that.
By the time Kobe and Shaq were separated, the relationship was so damaged that repairing it would have taken something north of a miracle.
But let’s say that they had been able to get along like other famous pairs – start with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Six championships would not have been out of the question. Even the magic number of seven, which would have given Bryant one more than Michael Jordan.
Don’t get me wrong. Had the Lakers won seven titles, we still wouldn’t consider Kobe better than Michael because Michael has been established as a legend for so long that no one will ever be considered better.
I actually wrote this four years ago on this site, but it is still accurate and worth repeating. There are certain realities in life. No matter what happens in the future, we will always believe there has never been a basketball player better than Michael, a boxer better than Ali, a phenomenon greater than Elvis, a football player better than Jim Brown, a band better than the Beatles, a television show better than The Wire, a baseball player more legendary than Babe Ruth, a hot dog better than one served by a New York street vendor, a performer more electrifying than Michael Jackson or a fast food better than a hamburger.
But despite what Kobe believes, we would have recognized his greatness. As proof, I offer the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history, who were chosen in 1996 by a panel of ex-players, team executives and 13 members of the media.
Included in the list were four members of the Celtics – Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and John Havlicek – who never won a championship without Bill Russell on the team.
Larry Bird led the Celtics to three titles in his career, but not only was Kevin McHale, the second most important player on those teams, included in the 50 greatest players list, but Robert Parish was, too.
Robinson never won a title without Duncan, but both are on the list.
Jordan is the greatest, but Scottie Pippen was also recognized as one of the top 50. He deserved it and the panel, including the media, was smart enough to recognize it.
And not only were Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the list, but so was the third most important player on those teams, James Worthy.
If there is an applicable comparison to Kobe-Shaq, it is Magic-Kareem. Although Kareem is the leading scorer in NBA history, it is not uncommon when the greatest players are being debated for Magic to be ranked ahead of Kareem.
Although Kobe may be satisfied that his five championships give him one more than Shaq, we will always wonder what could have been if the two had managed to get along like Kareem and Magic, Duncan and Robinson and Russell and everybody. Although Shaq-Kobe would not have challenged the 11 titles won by Russell, it’s a safe bet they would have won more with each other than they did after separating.
Kobe was only 26 when Shaq, who was 31, was traded to Miami. If they had stayed together, Shaq’s skills would have started to decline at the same time Kobe was reaching his prime years. That would have been evident to everyone, especially the media.
For Kobe to think that he could have played the way he did for 20 years and not be properly appreciated is simply wrong. No matter who their teammates are, the greatest players in NBA history have always gotten their due. And you don’t have to look any farther than the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history to see that.
Had Kobe and Shaq stayed on the same team, chances are the opinion of Kobe would not have been any greater than it is now, but it certainly would not have been any worse.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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