Kobe Bryant has pulled off the best MJ impersonation to date, until D-Wade usurps his crown. The Black Mamba came onto the scene as a hyper-athletic, uber-competitive, ultra-confident shooting guard straight out of high school.
The basketball gods smiled down upon Kobe on draft day, placing him on a Lakers team with a recently signed Shaquille O'Neal in addition to vital complementary pieces. Bryant steadily improved as a youngster, until becoming an outright superstar under Phil Jackson's nurturing wing. For a three-year period, two of the best three players in the NBA, Bryant and O'Neal, begrudgingly coexisted en route to three straight championships.
Although Shaq was the alpha dog of those Laker squads, Kobe had shining moments of his own down the stretch, such as his 25/11/7, four-block performance in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Trail Blazers. One of those assists from that game happens to be the clip of a still afro-sporting Kobe throwing that gorgeous alley oop pass to O'Neal, who then proceeds to sprint down the court, arms stretched into the sky, eyes as big as saucers, looking like he's just discovered an all-you-can-eat buffet. I'm sure you've seen it; the NBA ran the clip for years.
Kobe peaked as an all-around player during this time, allowing O'Neal to carry the heavy scoring load, while he managed to get every one else involved, lock down any perimeter threat, rebound and chip in with his 25 points.
The dynamic between the two appeared irreparable though, midway through the 2004 season. A power struggle between Shaqobe kept resurfacing, and really who couldn't have predicted that? Both proud men wanted all of the glory that came with carrying a championship team, and neither was willing to give it up. To make matters worse, Kobe was dealing with an embarrassing sexual assault charge at the time, and had mentioned that Shaq "deals with this stuff all the time," to The Big Diesel's dismay.
After a thrashing in the 2004 Finals by the Pistons, Shaq was promptly shipped off to Miami.
The Lakers, unable to surround Kobe with any competent help, finally convinced Memphis to hand over Pau Gasol for a washing machine. With adequate pieces in place, LA became perennial contenders once again, but this time Kobe was clearly leading the show.
With The Black Mamba at the helm, the Lakers managed to make three consecutive Finals appearances, falling to the Celtics in 2008, but then capturing the next two, over the Magic then Celts.
Funny that Kobe's ring tally ended up at five, just one short of MJ. From the day he was drafted, Kobe has done everything in his power to emulate Jordan, and has fallen a few steps short every single time.
From a clutch standpoint, Kobe ranks in my top-five of all-time. Although, two glaring holes on his resume that everyone overlooks are his two championships post-Shaq. Championship No. 1 was over a rather weak Magic team that only managed to make the Finals because of KG's multiple injuries that year. The Celts had absolutely dominated the basketball landscape just a season ago. Championship No. 2 came against a Celts squad lacking their best rebounder for Game 7, Kendrick Perkins, thanks to an ACL tear.
The Lakers destroyed the Celts on the boards that game, on their way to a repeat, despite Kobe's 6-for-24 stink bomb of a game. Had Gasol and Lamar Odom not controlled the paint so commandingly, the Lakers would have lost, and Kobe's horrific Game 7 would have gone down as one of the worst ever for a superstar. Hey, that's the way basketball goes.
I couldn't rank Kobe any lower, because honestly, he wore me down. Too many points, rebounds, assists, minutes, All-NBA teams and championships for too long. Statistically, Kobe will retire as a top-5 player in the history of the game.
But I will always remember afro-Kobe, the game's greatest second banana as my preferred version, rather than Kobe the alpha dog.