Before yesterday’s game I wrote, “Fair or not, legacies will be altered in the Staples Center this evening. And at the end of the game, we won’t think of anybody in the same way we did before the night began.”
As usual, I was dead wrong. I don’t think of anybody differently than I did prior to yesterday. A championship was won by the Lakers and lost by the Celtics, yet the legacies that I thought were on the line remain surprisingly intact.
Let’s start with Kobe Bryant, whose legacy had the most hype before yesterday’s game. He came into the game as a polarizing figure, with many people seeing him as the game’s greatest player and others seeing him as a terrific shot-maker who sometimes takes his team out of the offense with ill-advised shots. Still others thought of him as both those things. And he was all of that yesterday. He missed shot after stupid shot, but at the end of the night he’d won his 5th ring and put together a line of 23 points, 15 rebounds.
Whatever you think of him, Kobe is a ruthless winner who sometimes disobeys his team’s offense because he thinks it’s his team’s best chance to win. At the end of the day, he will be remembered as a player a step below Jordan, but in the same mold as a winner and competitor. His efforts were sometimes misplaced, but Kobe Bryant always did whatever he could to help his team win a basketball game.
Last night, even in one of the worst shooting performances of his playoff career, Kobe maintained everything he was known for. Even in overcoming the biggest flaw in his resume (finally beating the Celtics in the Finals), Kobe remained as polarizing as ever. But he shouldn’t be. It’s time to recognize him for just what he is, and then admire the hell out of him. The man, questionable shot selection and all, is as fierce a competitor as there is in the NBA. That doesn’t change because he won another Finals MVP, it doesn’t change because he shot 6-24, and it doesn’t change because he now has five titles instead of four.
But enough about Kobe. It’s the Celtics that I love. It’s the Celtics who needed a second title to validate their first. And they didn’t do that. But somehow, in a weird way, even the loss bolstered the C’s reputations in my eyes. Even the loss solidified exactly how their legacies should remain. They didn’t win a second title, but they damn near killed themselves fighting for it. And when we look back at the Big Three-era Celtics, that’s how we’re going to remember them. As the scrappy, never-say-die superstars who banded together as a team that was somehow greater even than the sum of its spectacular parts. The tough hombres who never stopped playing defense. The group of lovable losers (when alone) that joined as ferocious winners willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of the team. The crew that fought for every inch, persevered through every piece of adversity, and kept on fighting. The Celtics lost last night, but don’t have a single loser among them. Losing one game doesn’t change who these Celtics are.
And maybe that’s what is wrong with all the media and bloggers today. We want to discuss players’ legacies at halftime of a big game, as if 24 minutes of basketball can somehow wipe out everything that’s happened in an entire career. Yesterday, I personally thought legacies would be altered because it was a Game 7. That’s when legends are made, right?
But what I didn’t realize was that players are what they are. When players have been in the league as long as the Big Three and Kobe have, one game isn’t going to make or break a career. And usually, when the pressure is on and the stakes are their highest, players are going to be exactly what we expect them to be. Even Ron Artest, who pulled a great game out of his magic hat, remained a loose cannon capable of anything and everything on a basketball court. The only player who superseded his legacy was Pau Gasol, and that was only because the media portrayed Pau as soft when he’s anything but. Pau played just as any reasonable person would expect him to; with heart, skill and an unwavering determination to win.
We try to base legacies on one game, or one playoff series, and it’s dumb. Ray Allen isn’t different today because he couldn’t hit the broad side of a fat girl’s rump for 24 minutes. Paul Pierce isn’t different today because he still has only one title. Kevin Garnett isn’t different because he came up short with a championship on the line.
Their legacies had already been forged. They’re the never-quit boys who will stop at nothing to win a ring — they just didn’t happen to win it this time. And if history looks down upon the Big Three because they only won one title, history will be messing up big-time. Even in defeat, those guys showed what they were made of.