After Kobe Bryant led his team to a fifth championship this past June he had secured his place in the books as one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game.
Haters and detractors had to begrudgingly accept that his achievements had propelled him into the top 10 best players of all time.
None of those haters were more vocal than Charles Barkley, who, up until recently insisted that Kobe Bryant was not even among the 10 best players of all time.
Last season, on TNT, Barkley admitted that Kobe is a top 10 player of all time. Then, Barkley went even further when he declared that Kobe is a top five player of all time right now. Not when it is all said and done, but right now.
The change in heart by Barkley is a major shift in his personal beliefs, but it was a correct one. Kobe Bryant right now is a top five player of all time. There's only three guys that have ever been greater than Kobe:
I know it seems hard to believe—and even blasphemous to put Kobe ahead of historical greats like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Some would even argue that Kobe is not greater than his contemporaries like Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.
Yet, when we view Kobe's dominance as a complete basketball player objectively, we are left to conclude that the man had no weaknesses as a player other than hubris.
Hubris is a quality that tends to infect the greatest of players. It is an excessive self-pride and arrogance.
While Kobe has curbed his hubris over the years in favor of measuring what he can realistically do, it was on full display last June when he shot six for 24 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Yet it is his hubris that allowed him to dispatch the Suns in Game 6 with impossible shot after impossible shot, in a fashion that can only be described as "Kobe-esque."
It was that hubris that allowed him to drop seven game-winners last season. And it was that hubris that allowed him to believe that he could actually take a team starting Smush Parker as point guard to the playoffs in 2005-06.
Yes, hubris. That arrogance which turns people off and causes clashes with teammates. That arrogance which allows Kobe to miss 10 shots in a row and still have the belief that he'll make number 11. That hubris which is his greatest weakness is also his greatest strength.
That hubris infects fans on both sides as well. I remember Game 4 of the playoffs in the first round in 2005-06. Lakers-Suns. It was overtime. 97-98, Suns. 6.1 seconds remaining.
Luke Walton had won a jump ball over Steve Nash and Kobe recovered it. Pause. At that moment, I knew the Suns were done. My brother knew it. People watching everywhere knew it. The game-winning shot was a mere formality.
Set Scene: Kobe dribbles to the elbow. Rises up, two defenders on him, fade away, elbow square. Release. Buzzer sounds, net splashes. 99-98, Lakers.
For Lakers fans, it was the arrogance knowing that their guy was going to make the play. No way it doesn't happen like that.
For Suns fans, it was the fear that the greatest clutch player since Jordan had the ball for a game-winning shot in the playoffs.
For everyone else, it was just another example of Kobe being Kobe.
Not since Jordan has a player really struck fear in the hearts of opposing players. There have been big players like Shaquille O'Neal and unpredictable players like Ron Artest. But there's no one you feared.
See, it is not even the fact that you're not going to stop Kobe which causes the fear. Yes, you know Kobe is going to get his. But so will a lot of great players.
It is that your defense is just all part of the plan. Kobe doesn't just score, but he dances. As he makes his move using impeccable footwork, he takes the defender on a journey. He taunts the defender, getting the defender to react to every step of his foot and every twist of his body.
Then Kobe will finally be done with the preparation and delivers the fatal blow—hanging in the air for an eternity and shooting from an impossible angle with a hand in his face.
Perfect defense never stops perfect offense.
A player might replicate such a feat maybe once or twice in a season. Kobe can replicate it 10 or 11 times a game.
It's one thing to end up on SportsCenter after being dunked on. It's another to end up on SportsCenter after playing perfect defense, only to be made to look like a puppet in a grander scheme during a mid-range jump shot.
Not since Jordan have we seen someone who combines ultimate skill with relentless desire. And we never saw it before Jordan.
There are those who might well concede that Kobe has the skill and the drive, but will still say Magic, Bird and Russell are better.
"What about the MVP awards," they yell.
What about them? MVP has never been an award that represents the best player in the game. What we know is that before last year, when LeBron James made it interesting, Kobe was the consensus pick for best player in the game for nearly half the decade.
While the MVP award represents the choices of sports journalists who make their picks anonymously, we have scores of scouts, legends, coaches and current players who have said that Kobe is the best player in the league and it is not even close.
And don't forget, Kobe was named Player of the Decade by nearly all reputable sports publications including Sporting News and ESPN.
But Bird was Bird!
Yes, and Kobe is Kobe.
It is tough to let the past go, but what we know is that Kobe Bryant has made more All-NBA teams, he's made more All-Star games and he's made many more All-Defensive teams than Bird in the same number of years. As a small forward, Bird was it. There was no competition.
Bryant has been the best shooting guard in an era of great shooting guards. Kobe has had infinitely more competition at his position than Bird had in his, and Kobe has still matched Bird in all those categories.
In other words, because the competition at the shooting guard position today is much greater than the competition at the small forward position in Bird's time, its been much harder for Kobe to get the All-Star and All-NBA teams that he's earned.
Not to mention the little detail that Kobe has just as many Finals MVPs as Bird and two more rings.
Well, what about Magic?
Magic, to me, was the epitome of basketball greatness. A 6'8" point guard who could play multiple positions and make the game look so easy.
But the league was weak back then. Consider in 1984-85 when the Lakers won the championship, they had virtually no competition in the Western Conference. The Lakers won 62 games that season. Only one other team in the conference, the Denver Nuggets, won 50 games or more.
In 2008-09 when Kobe led his team to the championship, the Lakers won 65 games, but six out of the eight playoff contenders won 50 games or more in the conference.
The pattern was consistent: The Lakers would rule the Western Conference and only one or two other teams would get 50 or more wins in the entire conference. This was true in 1979-80.
Kobe's led his team to championships against much stiffer competition than Magic with far less help, in an era of far more scrutiny.
Magic was always loved and often delivered; Kobe was often hated and always delivered. A subtle distinction, but one that underscores Kobe's mental greatness.
While the advanced statistics never much favored Kobe, it is his relentless desire to be the best and his mental toughness to come through in the most difficult of circumstances that warrants his place in the top five of all time.
As LeBron James competes for his first championship, perhaps it is fitting that we reflect on the man who won five. His place in history is secure as one of the top five to ever lace them up.