Nothing in the world of sports is quite like a Game 7. Game 7s indicate a hard-fought series between two evenly matched teams. It's a rare moment when a single game will determine who wins the championship. Either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics is leaving the Staples Center Thursday night with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Kobe Bryant has been given an opportunity to do something Michael Jordan never has: win an NBA Finals Game 7. If the Lakers win, Bryant will tie Magic Johnson for the most championships won while wearing a Lakers jersey.
Clearly, there's a lot at stake.
It's important to note that Bryant has already proven himself to be one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. His legacy is secure. At the same time, it's highly unlikely he will ever surpass Jordan and claim the title of all-time greatest.
Bryant is playing to be the best of his generation. A win would give him five titles, breaking a three-way tie between him, Tim Duncan, and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal for most rings since Jordan.
If the Lakers win, Bryant would presumably be awarded Finals MVP. That would be his second time winning the award, putting him one behind Duncan and Shaq.
Bryant may already be the best player since His Airness. However, he cannot definitively claim that distinction. A Game 7 victory would strengthen his case.
Despite a solid postseason career, Bryant still lacks a signature playoff game. By default, Game 7 will be an event his fans or critics will use to build a case for, or against, him. Having a game for the ages would go a long way toward quieting his critics.
Great players need classic games. They need moments people can point to when a new generation asks, "Was he really that good?"
Bryant understands how legacies are constructed. He knows the history of the game. He realizes that an exhilarating performance in a Finals Game 7 can grant him NBA immortality.
In terms of historical importance, Bryant could not ask for a better opponent. He might have God-like status in Los Angeles now, but beating the hated Celtics in Game 7 would guarantee that reverence long after his career is finished.
On the other hand, if the Lakers lose it will be difficult for Kobe to steal Johnson's place as the greatest Laker. It would mark the second time Kobe lost to the Celtics in the Finals. Considering the age of the Celtics' Big Three, it is unlikely that he will get another chance to beat them.
Also, there are no guarantees that Kobe will ever play in the Finals again. The much anticipated summer of 2010 has the potential to shake up the power structure of the NBA for years to come. Depending on how things turn out, the Lakers might not even be the favorites to win the West next year.
Right now, the only thing certain is the Lakers are playing the Celtics for the championship.
But when players reach Bryant's level, they play for more than a championship.
Bryant is, in essence, playing against everyone who has ever played, or will play, the game of basketball. This is about greatness, and he has a chance to cement his status as the best player of the 2000s.
I expect a great game from Kobe Bryant, but I have no idea if it will be enough to win Game 7.