I admit, it's incredibly cliche to go around quoting the late, great John Wooden, as everyone seems to be doing in the wake of his passing. The man's legacy is as much the product of wisdom as winning. Perhaps, then, it's more difficult than anything to avoid invoking the words of the Wizard of Westwood, especially when talking about the game of basketball.
My chosen nugget of wisdom for the day: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts".
After spending the last two weeks observing and musing about an NBA Finals series rife with twists, turns, performances incredible and incredulous alike, and a never-ending string of statistical and historical story-lines, concluded by a most improbable Game 7 in which the Lakers came away with a victory despite one of the absolute worst offensive displays ever captured on video, it is clearer than ever that there will always be something to surprise, something to shock, something to make you scratch your head before you realize that it hasn't all been done before, even if you've seen and done most of it.
Even if your name is Kobe Bryant. Even if you've played in seven NBA Finals, winning four, on the verge of capturing a fifth. Even if you've won MVP awards for the regular season, the All-Star game, and the Finals. Even if you've won an Olympic gold medal as the go-to guy on your team. Even if you've scored eighty one points in a single game. Even if you know you're the best player - on your team, in the series, on the planet, etc.
There's always something you haven't done, something new to experience.
For Kobe, Game 7 of the Finals was just that. He'd never truly been in a situation like this - one game for all the marbles. Sure, Kobe's dealt with intense pressure before, but nothing like this. On this night, it wasn't just Kobe against Ray Allen or Tony Allen or Paul Pierce or whoever else the Celtics threw at him. First and foremost, it was Kobe against Kobe.
Where Kobe's desire to win is usually his greatest strength, it became his greatest weakness. For three quarters, he tried to do it all himself, taking forced, off-balance, impossible shots against an already-staunch Celtics D. Even if it meant leaving his teammates - many of whom have proven to be bricklayers in their own right - waiting on the perimeter, watching Kobe take on double- and triple-teams while the likes of Lamar Odom and Ron Artest had open looks at the basket.
Kobe figured, he'd done it himself before, and in a Game 7 that meant everything to him, he'd surely step his game up to an even higher level. Little did he know that the pressure of such a winner-take-all situation, against a team that has defined the legacies of the greatest Lakers before him, would take his greatness and turn it against him, just as Frankenstein's monster turned on his creator.
By the end of the third quarter, with a resounding five-for-twenty shooting night in the works under his name, Kobe certainly thought he knew it all. He'd faced this Celtics team now nineteen times in the past three years. He'd won a title as THE man, without Shaq.
It was what Kobe learned after all that, after trying to do it all himself and failing, that propelled the Lakers past the scrappy, hungry, veteran Celtics to the franchise's sixteenth championship.
To invoke the words of legends of another sort, he got by with a little help from his friends. After listening to Derek Fisher's speech to him...I mean, to the team, at the start of the fourth quarter, Kobe got the ball to D-Fish for a tying three-pointer. After watching Ron Artest jack up shot after miserable, ill-advised shot and having Ron-Ron practically grovel at his feet for acceptance all season, Kobe finally passed him the ball, and the quirky quack from Queensbridge delivered to the tune of twenty points, five rebounds, and five steals, including a crucial three-point shot in the last couple minutes.
Rather than allowing his ego to try to win the game - a move that had proven itself to be fatal throughout the years and in this particular instance - Kobe let his teammates take over. He chose crisp passes, man-sized rebounds, and determined drives to the basket over spectacularly improbable jump shots. He chose grit and determination over glory for himself. In short, he chose winning over losing.
Winning doesn't always come naturally. The truly great ones don't just stroll into their greatness having done it all before; they earn it, they learn, they fight for it.
Magic Johnson, as great as he was coming out of college, had Kareem as a role model for greatness before he became the greatest player of his generation. Michael Jordan had no such example, but rather had to persevere through years of selfishness and coming oh-so-very close before learning to trust himself AND his teammates. Much like Magic, Kobe had Shaq to lean on and learn from before toiling through early-MJ-esque years of individually stellar play in which ultimate success was hindered by a lack of trust in others.
It was what Kobe learned after knowing it all - after playing thirteen seasons in the NBA, after studying the history of his league, after playing with and against phenomenally talented individuals - that made the difference for the Lakers in Game 7 against the Celtics.
Of course, Kobe is still only thirty-one years old. Assuming he comes back healthy after the most physically-taxing season of his career, Kobe has plenty of championship- caliber basketball ahead of him. Now that he's done it all, now that he's beaten the Celtics in a Game 7, it will be interesting to see what new and rarefied heights Kobe climbs to, what impossible feats Kobe achieves from here on out.
In short, it's what Kobe does from this point on, now that he's done it all, that will truly define his place in the Pantheon of basketball.