Recently, I've been re-reading The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.
In part because it's such a great analysis of determining what separated the good from the very good, the very good from the great, and the great from the elite...also because I have way too much time on my hands, and 700 pages of basketball is a good way to kill time.
One of my favorite chapters is about "the secret." He talks about how statistics and talent are overvalued when talking about NBA champions—teams win when players "know their role, ignore statistics, and value winning over everything else.
"They win because their best players sacrifice to make everyone else happy. They win as long everyone remains on the same page."
In further discussion on superstar players, Simmons goes on to create three groups:
"Elite players who made themselves and everyone else better; elite players who were out for themselves; and elite players who vacillated back and forth between those two mind-sets depending on how it suited their own interests."
It's pretty easy to target players in the first group. Guys like Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan thrived on not only pushing themselves to the limit, but their teammates as well.
In turn, their teams got better when it mattered.
You've got to do a little digging to get into the second group. The ideal example would be Wilt Chamberlain, and you could argue that someone like Allen Iverson or Rick Barry did the same.
And for a majority of his career, the player who epitomized the third syndicate would be Kobe Bryant.
There hasn't been a more polarizing figure in the NBA during the last decade or two than Kobe. People either love and defend him vehemently, or they have an almost irrational dislike of him.
The pro-Kobe camp will talk about how, in his younger days, he willingly played sidekick to Shaquille O'Neal in L.A.'s three straight titles from 2000-2002.
They'll talk about how he amazingly carried a team of Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm, and Brian Cook to the playoffs, even taking the heavily favored Phoenix Suns to a seventh game.
They'll talk about the countless amount of clutch shots and game-changing plays he's made in the stretch of several playoff games.
They'll talk about how he finally got over the hump last year with the Lakers, and during the last two seasons has encompassed every value, virtue, and trait that a pantheon player should have.
The anti-Kobe people will hammer home the point that he selfishly drove Shaq out of town, and that the early 2000 Lakers were good enough to win five or six titles if they didn't self-destruct.
They'll mention that, in the very year Kobe carried a team of duds to the playoffs against Phoenix, he almost purposely tanked in the second half of Game Seven, refusing to take shots and deferring to his teammates far too much.
They'll say he was outplayed in the '08 NBA Finals, that he's not nearly the same player he was two or three years ago, and that even though he has some of the best talent in the league surrounding him, he still tries to take games over far too often.
But the arguments from the anti-Kobe people are dwindling. Even if the amount of people that continually ostracize Bryant isn't dissipating, their logic and reasoning is.
Over the past two seasons, Bryant has heard just about everything you could imagine from every NBA pundit and wanna-be amateur writer (including myself).
During the summer of 2008, he had to sit and stew about how the Celtics simply out-worked and out-hustled his Lakers, denying him of his first championship without Shaq.
He had to hear about how his knees weren't quite the same, he didn't include his teammates enough, how LeBron James had easily surpassed him as the game's best player (we all deserve a slap on the wrist for that one), and how he wasn't the type of player who could dominate a game night-in, night-out anymore.
Instead, Bryant has channeled all of the doubt, all of the talk surrounding him into one goal: making his team (and himself, of course) better in the playoffs.
He's been nothing short of spectacular throughout the last two postseasons.
He saved his best games for the clinchers last year and continually came through when it mattered, as he seemingly always has for the Lakers.
After Charles Barkley said Bryant couldn't go out and score 30 or 40 every night, he reeled off six straight 30-point games across three different series this year.
His fourth quarter performance against the Suns was the most impressive display of clutch and stomach-punch shooting (for Phoenix fans, at least) that we've seen since the days of Jordan. Not just the degree of difficulty on half of his shots, but their value...each one just deflated an energetic and hungry Suns team that kept clawing and clawing and clawing back in the game.
With another cold-blooded performance in the NBA Finals, Kobe can further elevate his already established career to new heights, perhaps becoming the best player in Lakers history or being a top-10 (and maybe even top-five) player in NBA history.
And he can separate himself from "elite player who vacillated between two different minds" to the first group that consisted of Magic, Bird, Jordan, and Russell.
As if he needs any extra motivation, you know the loss from 2008 still haunts Bryant.
Johnny Ludden wrote a great piece about how Bryant was somewhat vindicated in beating the Suns this year (after the two devastating, back-to-back playoff defeats to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007), but he won't be satisfied until he settles every score.
Bryant is wired different than any other player in the NBA. He is obsessed with not only cementing his place in history, but his team's place as well.
He doesn't forget the pain that comes with losing , and that seems to drive him even more. I'm willing to bet a 39-point defeat that eliminated him in the NBA Finals will actuate his performance that much more.
In his book Second Wind , Bill Russell talks about the inner workings of a championship team (these quotes are also featured in The Book of Basketball ):
"Star players have an enormous responsibility beyond their statistics—the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it. You have to do this to win championships...You have to say and do the things that make your opponents play worse and your teammates play better."
He also goes on to say, "It's much harder to keep a championship than to win one. After you've won once, some of the key figures are likely to grow dissatisfied with the role they play, so it's harder to keep the team focused on doing what it takes to win.
"Also, you've already done it, so you can't rely on the same drive that makes people climb mountains for the first time; winning isn't new anymore...You have to keep going out there, game after game.
"Besides, you're getting older, and less willing to put up with aggravation and pain...When you find someone who at age 30 or 35 has the motivation to overrule that increasing pain and aggravation, you have a champion."
As each day passes, that quote more aptly describes the best player (and closer) we have in our league: Kobe Bryant.
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