The 2-guard has outlasted all of his peers and reached the mountaintop more often than any other active superstar in the league. His successes are very well documented, but his story makes him an incredibly compelling figure in the basketball world.
Kobe Bryant joined the league in 1996 straight out of high school. Many felt as though he had future greatness written all over him. The Los Angeles Lakers traded for him after the Charlotte Hornets drafted him to pair him with Shaquille O’Neal.
Both players were quite headstrong and clashed. Ultimately, they reached a common ground, meshed their talents together beautifully, and won three straight championships under the tutelage of Phil Jackson.
Bryant’s rise to prominence coincided with a period in which the league felt a huge void for a perimeter superstar because of the absence of Michael Jordan. The game’s greatest player had retired at the conclusion of the 1998 NBA Finals, and the league was seeking someone to eradicate the ghost of Jordan.
O’Neal and Tim Duncan were arguably the best players in the NBA, but fans tend to gravitate more towards exterior players. Big guys are great and help deliver championships, but they do not captivate quite in the same manner that perimeter superstars do.
Indeed, talented perimeter players look far more artistic and bring excitement to the sport. Basketball needed Bryant.
Iverson was an intriguing prospect for the throne because he refused to conform to off-the-court ideologies that made the league popular. Robert Huber of Philadelphia Magazine shared some tidbits about him:
He was stopped by cops in Virginia while riding in a car’s passenger seat with a registered gun on the floor and in possession of marijuana. He was sued by a guy who wouldn’t leave a VIP area in a lounge and was beaten up by Iverson’s bodyguard as Iverson impassively watched. (The guy won $260,000.) He got into a scrape with [then wife] Tawanna in which he supposedly threw her, naked, out of their house in Gladwyne — then showed up at a cousin’s place in West Philly looking for her, allegedly with a gun in his pants. (The allegation fell apart in court.) All of this was momentarily shocking, but not surprising; the only issue was whether he’d tumble into a scrape he couldn’t roll out of.
The former Georgetown Hoya came with tattoos, cornrows and a swagger that often came across as defiance. And of course, he had crossed over Jordan.
And yet, for all his bravado and talents, Iverson never claimed the top spot in the league. He was traded multiple times and eventually saw the curtain abruptly drop before him despite the fact he still wanted to play in the league.
Carter went head-to-head versus Iverson in the 2001 playoffs in an exciting seven-game series. The former North Carolina Tar Heel had put himself on the map thanks in large part to his vast array of thunderous dunks, but his postseason showing with the Toronto Raptors was at the time viewed as a sign of things to come.
Instead, Carter vacillated between good and great and never quite fulfilled his potential. He publicly admitted that he gave very little effort in his final days in Toronto but then became rejuvenated with the New Jersey Nets.
He occasionally stole Howard’s Superman cape, but that barely lasted. He morphed into a role player and has not been thought of as a great player since. Some of his contemporaries shared a similar fate, but they were actually affected by physical setbacks.
McGrady and Hill actually joined forces to play together with the Orlando Magic in the 2000 summer, but injuries robbed us of what could have been an outstanding tag team. Hill's health derailed his prime, and thus we were left contemplating what could have been.
McGrady, on the other hand, flashed his talent and overall brilliance with the Magic and later on with the Houston Rockets.
From 2000-01 to 2006-07, he averaged 26.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game, per Basketball Reference. More importantly, though, he went toe-to-toe with the league’s best.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons outlined McGrady’s Hall of Fame credentials and shared this quote from former Houston Rocket head coach Jeff Van Gundy:
McGrady made people better — he was a great, great passer. Wasn't a great shooter, but he was a great scorer, could guard, pass, was smart, rebounded. He could do everything. I mean, even Bryant came out and said some nice things … it's not like Kobe Bryant goes out and blows smoke up people's ass.
Injuries ended up robbing the 6’8’’ swingman of his explosiveness, and that essentially was the end of his career as a superstar. He reinvented himself as a role player and was a member of the San Antonio Spurs team that was eliminated in the 2013 NBA Finals.
McGrady retired not long after.
Bryant, on the other hand, is still an active player and has not really shown any signs of slippage. Despite the fact he suffered an Achilles tear late in the 2012-13 campaign, there is a belief that he will be back playing at his usual levels for the start of the 2013-14 season.
The Lakers' all-time leading scorer has not only surpassed all the would-be successors to Jordan’s throne, he has outlasted them. Indeed, Bryant has more NBA Finals MVP trophies than all the previously mentioned perimeter players (not named Michael Jordan) combined.
Furthermore, he accomplished a feat that former Laker great Magic Johnson never did: Bryant celebrated two championships after seeing a dominant Hall of Fame center leave his side.
The 17-year veteran conquered his challengers and also surmounted whatever internal challenges he faced. He accomplished all of this while slowly stepping into Jordan’s shadow and becoming the league’s marquee attraction.
This begs the question: Where do the Lakers fit into all of this?
Los Angeles Lakers History
The Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960. Jerry Buss purchased the franchise from then-owner Jack Kent Cooke and turned the Lakers into basketball royalty.
The Purple and Gold struggled to capture titles initially, but the team was glamorous nonetheless. It had the best players and performed in one of the biggest markets in the country.
By the conclusion of the 1971-72 season, the Lakers finally claimed their first title since moving out to LA.
Some of the most iconic figures in basketball all sported a Lakers jersey during the 1960s and '70s: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Most agree that these players are amongst the top 50 best players ever.
And yet, the franchise was far from done.
The front office acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson towards the end of the decade and retooled. That tandem collaborated and turned the Lakers into the team of the 1980s by virtue of their five titles collected during the decade.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar are regarded as two of the five greatest players in basketball. Abdul-Jabbar’s off-court demeanor contributed in some form into making him the most easily forgotten great player in NBA history, but legendary he is nonetheless.
Johnson, on the other hand, joined forces with Larry Bird to become the faces of the sport during the 1980s. His excitement both on and off the court coupled with his breathtaking passing ability turned him into perhaps the greatest showman basketball has ever seen.
He became the founder of "Showtime," the fast-break style of the Lakers of the '80s, and turned the Lakers into a spectacle. The team was not only winning, it was doing so with style.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar eventually retired and were succeeded by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The pairing carried the torch and won three titles in the early 2000s. O’Neal was eventually traded away, which in turn resulted in Bryant becoming the undisputed face of the franchise.
Bryant rewarded the Lakers’ faith in him by winning back-to-back titles in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. His final trip to the NBA Finals kept a remarkable streak alive: The Lakers have participated in the championship round in every decade since joining the National Basketball Association.
If there was ever a franchise that was going to use the “count the rings” argument, it would have to be the Lakers. They have won 16 titles and are second only to the Boston Celtics on that front.
The Celtics by virtue of their league-leading 17 championships are considered as the most successful franchise in basketball. And yet, the Lake Show outpaces them in playoff appearances and all-time winning percentage.
Bob Cousy, Larry Bird and Bill Russell are the iconic Boston sports figures that revolutionized basketball, while Los Angeles offers West, Chamberlain, O’Neal, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Bryant.
This firmly places the Lakers near the top of the rankings when discussing the most storied teams in basketball as well as their overall popularity around the globe.
Lakers or Kobe?
It would be easy to proclaim that the Los Angeles Lakers are more popular as a whole given their rich tradition. Forbes tells us they are the second-most valuable franchise in basketball and they were the second-biggest road draw in 2012-13.
Their popularity as well as their current value are directly tied to Bryant. Road attendance does not increase for the Lakers because Pau Gasol is coming to town. Perhaps that might sound harsh, but Bryant’s appeal is simply too strong.
He puts fans in seats, and thus he is the highest-paid player in his profession.
Keep in mind, the attraction to follow and watch Bryant is not merely national. The acclaim he receives in China is practically on par with what a homegrown star such as Yao Ming receives in his country of origin.
Team USA is always going to be an all-world phenomenon, but Bryant’s inclusion on the 2012 squad coupled with a gold medal turned that unit into a would-be challenger for the Dream Team in the court of national opinion.
Bryant himself acknowledged he felt good about his team’s chances versus the 1992 Olympic squad, whereas Michael Jordan quickly shot down the notion. Still, Bryant had enough cachet to challenge the former greats without inviting a harsh level of scrutiny and ridicule.
Part of that stems from the fact that a segment of the basketball world seems to embrace his seemingly evil persona. Bryant has become a wrestling character in the mold of Vince McMahon more than anything and it has made him one of the most disliked athletes in America.
People either hate Bryant’s comportment altogether or enjoy watching him antagonize others. Regardless of the side one takes, he is fascinating to observe.
This partly explains why Bryant has over 3.4 million followers on Twitter, whereas his team has 3.3 million. Everything the man does is newsworthy.
The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer created a national stir by merely choosing to no longer follow former teammate Dwight Howard on Twitter. His popularity surpasses that of his franchise in ways that perhaps only LeBron James can comprehend.
In the last decade, they have been at the top of the jersey sales list and earned national praise for their postseason accomplishments and international success on the hardwood.
James’ case is a little different though given that the Miami Heat do not even come close to matching the history of the Lakers. James is bigger than the Heat, but we are not exactly comparing apples to apples here.
When Bryant eventually retires, his brand will still temporarily surpass that of the Lakers. That will remain as such until the team brings in a new superstar that shifts the balance of power.
In other words, Bryant is in a stratosphere all by himself, and he is probably used to it.