June 2011 is a lifetime away for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. What lies ahead is a long and winding road of training camps, near meaningless pre-season games (unless you’re the Clippers) and a dark and dreary regular season that stretches and winds it’s way through six months worth of waiting. Oh they’ll be plenty of wins and losses, injuries, trade rumors, TV timeouts, speculation about the refs and enough ESPN hype to keep us entertained all along the way to the Promised Land of the NBA Playoffs. But for Kobe Bryant and his LA Lakers, the real 2011 season won’t begin until Game One of the first round of the Playoffs and a chance to defend what is rightfully theirs
This title defense won’t be like any of the previous four that have come before it. What awaits Bryant and the Lakers at the end of this yellow brick road is truly their greatest challenge to date. What awaits will demand that Bryant be able to shake the jitters and pressures that grabbed hold of him like a two ton gorilla hanging atop the Empire State building in last year’s Game Seven. What awaits is the chance to move past Magic as the winningest Laker ever. What awaits is the chance to tip the scales in Bryant’s favor rightfully placing him in that conversation in which only His Airness had previously belonged.
The Greatest of All Time.
And this time, it’s not the ring that matters. For if Bryant and the Lakers were to meet and beat, say, the Orlando Magic in a 2009 Finals rematch, the win would not have the same impact. If they were to beat the new and improved Chicago Bulls, it would leave this Lakers team, and indeed Kobe Bryant right where they are now: a good team, a mini dynasty, but not an all-time team and not in the realm of MJ.
It would be a 3-Peat, but it wouldn’t be THE 3-PEAT! You know what I’m getting to.
We all know.
We knew it as soon as a certain Two-Time MVP fled for the sunnier shores of South Beach. We knew it as soon as the ink dried in Boston and the Celtics had landed themselves the Big Benedict Arnold. This Finals would be THE FINALS, the one that truly defined a team and a career.
Make no mistake, as much as last year’s Finals victory was needed to solidify Bryant’s place among the game’s best, this year’s Finals will elevate him higher than any pair of Nike’s ever could.
It is said that with great challenges come greater opportunities.
Last year’s challenge was like the Matterhorn at Disneyland, vital and necessary to learn to climb but laughable by comparison. This year the Lakers will face Everest—be it the Celtics, with Bryant’s long-time arch-nemesis or the Heat with an all star Big Three, and two heirs-apparent to Kobe’s Ring Dynasty.
Much of the story line leading up to last season’s Finals—and most importantly to Game Seven—was where Bryant would find himself and his legacy once the Finals had ended. Well, nearly two months have passed and guess what folks… we still don’t know.
Joining Magic and Kareem as some of the only Lakers ever to take on Boston in the Finals and come away with a ring (and your head still intact) was supposed to cement Bryant as one of the greatest ever… wasn’t it? Winning a fifth ring to join Magic and come within one of MJ should have been enough to say that this was indeed the Kobe Bryant era after all.
Yet, last year's Finals and most of this NBA off season have been hijacked by a decision one player made to join his rivals rather than distinguish himself from them. Lebron James' introduction to South Beach felt too much like a WWE event. It lacked the substance and the grit that has defined the last three NBA champs.
If the Celtics' and Lakers' runs over the last three years have taught us anything it’s that it’s not the ESPN highlights or the superstars who made them that get you through the toughest best-of-seven series you’ll ever face… it’s the dirty work and the role players who get dirty who truly put teams over the top. Sure the Heat may get there, but they’re not there yet.
Then came the shocking announcement (insert sarcasm here) that Shaq was signed by his fourth team in four years cementing his legacy tainting, never-ending tour for another ring. In truth, Shaq’s addition to the Celtics depleted front line adds that much more intrigue to an already saturated story line. If the Celts do manage to wheelchair their way into a third Finals appearance in four years—an awfully big IF—then... oh the possibilities!
As if Lakers vs. Celtics wasn’t enough: imagine Kobe vs. Shaq, with a chance to tie them at five rings a piece or to propel Bryant to ring leader while leaving Shaq as the novelty act in what’s been one of the most amazing circuses the NBA has ever seen.
Put together, all this off season hype has relegated the Lakers' recent accomplishments to a mere afterthought; kind of like going to see a movie and then caring only about what you saw during the previews.
Only, this movie wasn’t a dud. It was gritty, and yes, at times ugly. To borrow from Christopher Nolan’s recent cinematic successes it was the Dark Knight that came before Inception. It was greatness preparing us for brilliance.
And brilliance will be what is needed for this next challenge. But this brilliance will not be coming from Boston, and as much as ESPN hopes, it won’t be coming from South Beach either. Yes, the preview of what’s to come out of Miami is exciting, but so many previews have left us unfulfilled and wanting our money back when the final product is finally released.
What lies ahead for Bryant and the Lakers is a chance at immortality. Seventy-two wins are not needed and 33-game winning streaks aren’t either. But a Finals victory over the Celtics with Shaq or one over the king without a ring and his pals down in Miami would undoubtedly place this Lakers team and the star that leads them into a place all their own.
Kobe will never pass MJ in the hearts and minds of some, so what happens after this year is postscript to what happens in June. It’s ring number six that matters, not number seven. It’s the chance for Bryant to take down the Big Cry-Baby once and for all, and in the process solidify the accomplishments of his early years. It’s the chance to kill the king that has been anointed and heralded as the GOAT before he has won anything. Finally it’s the chance to prove that when it comes to the GOAT, there are only two names that count.
That is what's on the line in 2011. That’s the opportunity before Bryant and the Lakers.
Coaches like to say that five seconds is a lifetime in basketball. A player with speed can go coast to coast in that time, great scorers can get off any look they want, and great rebounders can track down any loose ball. In the time between now and June 2011 anything can and will happen in the world of the NBA.
It’s an eternity away and yet, if you listen carefully you can hear deep down, “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!”
The lights are getting dimmer, and the movie’s about to start… so enjoy the ride!