Yes, He Has No (Second) Banana

O'Dell Isaac IICorrespondent IJune 17, 2008


The “Batman and Robin” analogy has been beaten to death by sportswriters in general and basketball writers in particular. It is so terribly worn out that no one even tangentially affiliated with sports should ever use it again.

So I ask your forgiveness in advance for using it, later in this article. I just can’t help myself.

This year’s NBA Finals have completely flummoxed me so far. Everyone who knows basketball knows the Western Conference is tougher than the Eastern. This has been true since Michael Jordan’s Retirement, Part Deux, in 1998. This year’s West Coast champ was supposed to steamroll the sad-sack East Coast champs, regardless of who they might be.  But somebody forgot to tell that to the Boston Celtics.

Doc Rivers has the firm of Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Associates one win away from the NBA Championship. I stand by my assertion that the Celtics will win because they are tougher than the Lakers. But the wonderfully insightful columnist Michael Wilbon contends that the Celts aren’t just tougher, they’re better.

I’m inclined to agree, grudgingly. But why are they better?

They are better because they are playing three-on-one basketball: three stars for the Celtics versus one for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, for all his greatness, cannot win a title on his own. Michael Jordan couldn’t do it, and Kobe is no Michael Jordan. Michael had one thing – besides a greater abundance of innate talent – that Kobe does not. Michael had Scottie Pippen, the second-greatest second banana in the history of the NBA. Scottie was a seven-time All-Star and was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest. At his best, he was, in his own right, one of the best players in the league.

Kobe has no Scottie Pippen. He has no second banana. This is the same problem LeBron James faces in Cleveland, though LeBron’s troubles are far greater than Kobe’s.

(I’m digressing here, but it is my belief that LeBron James will end his NBA career as a New York Knick. That’s a column for a later date, though.)

The Lakers are immeasurably better than they were a year ago. In Pau Gasol, they have a wonderful complement to Bryant. Lamar Odom, who has All-Star talent but lacks All-Star ego, makes an above-average number three. But neither player makes an adequate second banana. There is great irony here, and I will address that at the end of my column.

Okay, I’ve held off long enough. Here come Batman and Robin:

Robin was clearly Batman’s subordinate, but he was, in his own right, a badass. He wasn’t quite as tough as Batman, but he was plenty tough. He accepted his role, but often chafed against it. He deferred to Batman, but only to a point. 

For those who prefer real-life analogies, I offer the relationship between Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz in the I Love Lucy series. Vance was a fine comedic actress, a respected veteran who made her bones before she signed on to play Ethel. The first woman ever to win a Supporting Actress Emmy, she is considered to be the best second banana in television history. She wasn’t always fond of her role, but she played it to perfection.

This is what Kobe needs, and while general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off an incredible coup (or was it thievery?) by acquiring Gasol, the sweet-shooting Spaniard doesn’t quite fit the bill. He doesn’t have the drive, or the ego. And he is a weakling. Odom has lots of game, but he doesn’t want the ball at crunch time.  He often disappears from the action. And he is a weakling.

I am writing this prior to the opening tip of Game Six of the finals, which takes place tonight in Boston. Only a colossal choke job will keep the Celtics from winning the NBA Championship. Assuming that doesn’t happen, Kobe and the Lakers will go back to the drawing board. If they can’t find a complementary All-Star, we won’t be seeing L.A. in the finals again anytime soon. There are just too many factors at play in the West. The Spurs aren’t done just yet. The New Orleans Hornets are feisty and energetic (both of those being code words for “young”) and are led by Chris Paul, one of the league’s top two or three point guards. The Jazz aren’t going anywhere. The Phoenix Shaq Experiment could still prove to be a success. The Portland Trail Blazers, with a healthy Greg Oden, will be a factor as well.  

I mentioned that Scottie Pippen is the second-greatest second banana in NBA history. Who, you might ask, is the best second banana?

I’ll give you a few hints: Like Pippen, he is a standout defensive player. Like Pippen, he has won championships. Like Pippen, he thought he could carry a team on his own. Like Pippen, he was wrong.

The greatest second banana in NBA history is none other than Kobe Bean Bryant.