No word has been thrown around more over the past week or two than legacy. Michael Jordan's 50th birthday made us reflect on his legacy as the greatest player of all time. LeBron James' recent dominance has made us consider the sheer magnitude of the legacy he is building for himself. And the death of Dr. Jerry Buss has made us consider the legacy of one of the great owners in the history of sports.
All of this got me thinking about Kobe Bryant and what his legacy really is. He has spent his entire career chasing the ghost of Jordan. Now, he is spending the twilight of his career being eclipsed by LeBron. When the history books are written, there is a good chance Kobe Bryant won't be in the same chapter as either of them.
Well, maybe not as a player. I don't think Kobe Bryant can be accurately measured as an athlete. I think his legacy should be defined by the utter eventfulness of his career. When you really stop to think about basketball over the past 15-20 years, almost every significant game, story, transaction and moment has led back to Kobe in some way, shape or form.
He's taken the form of young phenom, winning a Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie and finishing as the Sixth Man of the Year Runner up in year two.
As a 22-year-old, he won his first championship next to Shaquille O'Neal at his absolute apex. The pair (along with the greatest coach of all time, Phil Jackson) formed the preeminent dynasty of the 2000's.
Then it broke up, thanks in no small part to Bryant's sexual assault trial, the chemistry issues he caused by his shoot-first attitude (particularly in the NBA Finals) and his upcoming free agency which forced LA's hand in relenting to his desires.
That's what led to Bryant's peak as a player. He scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and could have done the same against the Dallas Mavericks had he not chosen to sit out the final quarter with 61 already under his belt. He finished the season averaging 35.4 points per game, the most since Jordan's legendary 37.1 in 1986-87.
But his team was...terrible. After the 2007 season, Bryant demanded a trade. Rumors of all sorts flew around the league, everything from Bryant joining the Bulls to Kevin Garnett joining Kobe in LA were possibilities. Eventually, Garnett ended up in Boston to face Bryant in the Finals twice in the next three years.
All of that was made possible by one of the most notorious trades in league history, the one that sent Pau Gasol from Memphis to Los Angeles. With Gasol, Bryant won two championships (including one over the hated Celtics) and finally got that Shaq-sized monkey off of his back.
And now here he is, still chugging along at 34 years old as the main piece of a historical flop. We'll always remember this year's Lakers for their failure, just like we'll always remember pretty much every part of Kobe's career.
That's why I took the time to write a timeline of Bryant's NBA accomplishments. His career, from a purely historical standpoint, is far more fascinating than Jordan's or LeBron's.
Most fans look at Jordan's career in two phases: the pre-championship years and the dynasty years. Some break it up between the two three-peats, but generally there are really only two versions of Michael Jordan that get any historical mention.
At the moment we can say the same about James, though history may tell a different tale when it's all said and done.
But Bryant? There might as well be thousands of versions of him.
There was young-phenom Kobe, championship Kobe, arguing-with-Shaq Kobe, ball-hog Kobe, gloomy-trade-demanding Kobe, "he gets it now" Kobe, "holy crap he's 34 how is he still averaging 27 points per game" Kobe and the modern "holding a team together as everything around him combusts" Kobe.
Thing is, I don't think there was ever any difference between them. I think every version of Kobe that has been thrown around by the media has been a fan-created fabrication. That's what makes him so interesting. When we look back at Kobe Bryant, we'll really be looking back on the Kobe Bryant we wanted to see.
The ebbs and flows of his career might as well just be titled "the history of the NBA from 1996-2013." Everything of note that happened in that era was somewhat related to Kobe.
Think about The Decision for a moment. Obviously that was LeBron's moment, but to me, it was also Kobe's coronation as a historically-great player. Think about what people were saying afterwards. The most common opinion was some iteration of: "Kobe Bryant would NEVER do that."
Think about the four championships the Spurs have won. It's not a coincidence that they came at times of weakness for Bryant's Lakers. The first came before Phil Jackson took over, the second came right around the peak of Kobe's feud with Shaq and the third and fourth were won when Bryant was carrying teammates that probably didn't deserve to play college basketball, much less NBA.
We hated Kobe for forcing Shaq out of LA, especially since they were leaving two or three potential championships on the table. But even as we watched O'Neal win one in Miami, we weren't celebrating the play of his teammate Dwyane Wade on its own merits, we simply declared him the new Kobe.
It was a faulty comparison to be sure. Wade would never match Bryant's obsession. Only MJ could, but not even Jordan could claim such singular dominion over an era as a personality.
Our minds will drift to Hakeem Olajuwon and wonder what might have been. We'll always remember Magic and Bird and the early years—and even his fallen competitors have earned a place in our hearts. MJ defined his era, Kobe was his era.
The entire era has to be framed around Bryant. You can trace any major moment back to him. The constant narrative of "who is Kobe Bryant?" was everlasting and ever-evolving, but the question always remained the same. Even as LeBron makes history, we can't get over our fascination with Bryant.
That will always be his legacy to me. That of a player so talented and so enigmatic and so frustrating that we just couldn't look away. An almost 20-year stretch of league history belongs solely to him, and not for the reasons it ever belonged to Jordan or will belong to James.
It was because of his flaws. Jordan was so perfect—both on the court and with the media—that he eventually became, to an extent, boring. But Bryant has always had a way of keeping things fascinating, though obviously not intentionally. The world loves to scrutinize and criticize him in ways that LeBron has only captured for short periods of time. We've gotten over LeBron. We'll never get over Kobe.
That's what makes him so special. It's what defines his legacy. He has been a part of so many important moments, and has become such an important part of the sports fan lexicon every step of the way, that the historical significance of his career has gone beyond what he did as a player. It became about how we perceived him as fans.
Kobe Bryant hasn't had the greatest career of all time, but I defy anyone to say he hasn't had the most eventful. The first true megastar of the digital age captured our attention in ways no other player ever will. That is Kobe Bryant's legacy.
Follow Sam Quinn on Twitter @Rhinos_Cry_Too