Kobe Bryant is the greatest one-on-one player the basketball world has ever seen.
Don't believe me? You don't have to, because those are the Mamba's words anyway.
In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Palmer earlier this year, Bryant was posed with several hypothetical one-on-one scenarios.
Not surprisingly, Michael Jordan was first up on Palmer's list of potential foes. Bryant relented that he'd probably lose some games but would eventually edge out the Chicago Bulls legend in a seven-game series.
Next Palmer set up Bryant with the matchup that today's fans are dying to see: LeBron James. And the former preps-to-pros leaper spiked that question, and the interview, deep into the annals of hardwood history.
Who would win between Jordan's closest clones of this generation, Palmer asked. "Me, no question," Bryant said. "As far as one-on-one, I'm the best to ever do it."
Confidence is key for anyone considering putting themselves through the rigorous physical demands necessary to carve out a career in professional sports. With only some 400-odd roster spots available in the NBA, even the slightest bit of self-doubt can mean the difference between having the dream and actually living it.
Bryant will go down as an all-time great; again, not my words, but rather those of his accomplishments: 11 All-NBA first-team selections, five championships, two Finals MVP awards, one regular-season MVP nod and the fourth-most points scored in league history (31,617 and counting, via Basketball-Reference.com).
And he's got a legendary ego to thank (or sometimes blame) for the path his career has taken.
Bryant doesn't have a filter. He speaks his mind, which is sometimes refreshing in this day of public relations-guided interviews when building a brand trumps saying anything of substance.
But a sharp tongue coupled with arrogance leads to some distressing declarations.
It isn't easy to keep the scoring savant satisfied. Shaquille O'Neal guided a young Bryant to his first three titles. And Bryant responded by forcing the big man out of L.A.
To Bryant, individual challenges trumped team success in the bitter breakup:
"You can't expect Michael [Jordan] to play with Wilt [Chamberlain] for his entire career," he said, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. "That's just not going to work. I had too much talent and too much to showcase. And then there was a challenge issued by him about me not being able to win without him. That's a challenge I couldn't pass."
The idea of winning without O'Neal consumed Bryant and certainly distorted his judgement. "I was just obsessed about winning without him" he said. "Everything was about that. I was obsessive about it and there was nothing that was going to get in my way."
Despite the championship rings it produced, Phil Jackson called the period with O'Neal and Bryant leading the Lakers "probably the greatest challenge I had through all my years," via Ryan Ward of LakersNation.com.
O'Neal was sent packing in July 2004, and Bryant's ego had all but erased his team's relevance. Trading superstars is always a problematic process, built on limiting damage rather than acquiring assets.
Just two seasons later, Bryant looked around the Lakers locker room and couldn't believe the damage he'd done.
"I almost won an MVP with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown on my team," he said, via Janis Carr of the Orange County Register. "I was shooting 45 times a game. What was I supposed to do? Pass it to Chris Mihm or Kwame Brown?"
No, Kobe, you were supposed to have O'Neal on the other end of those passes. But your ego got the best of you.
Bryant stripped the Lakers' cupboard barren, then chastised his overmatched peers at every opportunity. Per Carr, he saved his most scorching burns for Parker. "He shouldn't have have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard," Bryant said. "So we let him walk on."
Even that didn't have to be the crippling problem it quickly became. After all, Bryant later quipped that if forced into point guard duty, he'd be the best at that spot.
Bryant's not the first superstar to throw his teammates under the bus.
Jordan never missed the chance to berate his peers, referring to B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King and Dennis Hopson as "garbagemen" and belittling a then-rookie King who was examining a box score with an "I hope there's a jump shot in there" jab, via SI.com's Ben Eagle.
But Bryant and Jordan were able to keep their locker rooms from spiraling out of control despite their less-than-supportive leadership.
The Los Angeles Clippers weren't quite as lucky. After a franchise-best 56-win regular season, L.A.'s other team was dispatched by the Memphis Grizzlies in six games. T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times claimed the immaturity of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan coupled with the hyper-seriousness of Chris Paul led to the team's demise.
Neither were the what-could-have-been New York Knicks, who were torn apart by a pair of ball-dominant scorers (Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith) who had no interest in sharing the floor with an unselfish, overnight sensation (Jeremy Lin, via Ian O'Connor of ESPNNewYork.com).
And, much to the dismay of center Tyson Chandler, had no interest in sharing the basketball a season later as the Knicks fell apart against the Indiana Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals, via Newsday's Al Iannazzone.
And while Bryant hasn't entirely kept his ego in check on the floor (see his aforementioned "45" shots per game), he has avoided the atrocious Shaqtin' A Fool moments that plagued other me-first players.
At some point, players have to realize that self-alley-oops don't have a place in second-half comeback attempts.
Really no players are above committing ego-driven moments.
LeBron James first said unequivocally that he doesn't flop, later admitted there's a competitive edge for those that do and then picked up a $5,000 fine for flopping in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, via NBA.com.
No NBA player has ever agreed with a call that goes against them; not in the past decade, at least.
So yes, Mamba's high maintenance. Yes, Vino loves him some him.
But he's not the league's most egotistical superstar. Just its most successful one.
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