It’s been more than 48 hours since we learned the tragic news about Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the seven other souls on the doomed helicopter in Calabasas, Calif.
Hopefully it’s not too early to take a stab at assessing Kobe’s place in basketball history.
Kobe was not the greatest basketball player of all time. But he’s in this observer’s top 10, alongside Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, and Oscar Robertson.
Bryant was the best player of his generation, a perfectly sculpted bridge between Michael and LeBron. Today’s young adults who grew up thinking Ken Griffey Jr. was better than Willie Mays — because they never saw Willie Mays — might tell you that Kobe was better than Michael or Magic. Maybe because they never saw Michael or Magic.
Here in Boston, we saw Kobe come through town once a year for 20 years. We also had two Kobe clashes in the Finals, with the Celtics beating LA in six games in 2008 (Paul Pierce was Finals MVP) and Kobe getting his revenge in LA in a seventh game in 2010.
So where does Kobe fit?
These discussions are perfectly arbitrary talk radio/barroom arguments. They are part of the fun of being a sports fan. You say Joe DiMaggio, I say Ted Williams. A kid in high school in 2020 says Mike Trout.
Some of it is quantifiable. Kobe is the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. He is second in All-Star appearances (18), won five championships, was MVP once, and averaged 25 points per game. He also was named to the All-Defensive team 12 times, second-most in league history.
There is much about every player’s game that cannot be measured. Kobe invented himself as the Black Mamba. We can’t put a ranking on his sheer ruthlessness. He could put a dagger into your team like nobody else. He was the best NBA player when the sport truly became global, when professional basketball was uniquely popularized by social media.
In some circles, this made Kobe as big as Michael Jordan. And you can probably find folks who’d rank Kobe as the best basketball player of all time.
The magnitude of Kobe in star-driven Los Angeles is impossible for us to know, but his sudden death Sunday has shaken that community like nothing since the passing of Michael Jackson. Tuesday’s New York Times correctly headlined Bryant “The Face of the NBA’s Worldwide Popularity.’’
But what about Kobe’s basketball skills? And his place in NBA lore?
I’ve been watching the NBA game since 1962 and am mindful that it’s difficult to compare a point guard like Bob Cousy with a point guard like Kyrie Irving. The sport has dramatically changed.
Since the turn of the century, Jordan has been closest thing to a consensus No. 1 in the “best ever” argument.
Not with me. I’ve always been a Chamberlain guy.
I had a conversation about this with Bird when Bird was at the height of his (three-time) MVP powers in the mid 1980s. I asked Bird about “best ever.’’
“I can answer that,’’ said Larry. “That’s easy. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points. Bill Russell won 11 championships. It’s right there in the record books.’’
Those records remain. Wilt still holds 72 NBA records. He forced rule changes. He never came out of a game. He was 7 feet 1 inch with the muscular build of LeBron. He was never surrounded by Hall of Famers the way Russell was. Wilt didn’t have the rings of Russell or Michael, but on sheer size, strength, and skill, Chamberlain remains the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Look it up. Do the math. When you average 50 points over a full season, it means you have to get 70 in the game after you are “held” to 30 in order to maintain your average.
Give Kobe this: Scoring 81 points, which Bryant did in a win over the Raptors in 2006, came with a far greater degree of difficulty than Wilt’s low-post, free-throw-filled 100-point game in Hershey, Pa., during the Kennedy Administration. Different game, for sure.
In my book, LeBron is the second-best basketball player of all time, barely ahead of Jordan. LeBron is a 6-9 force who wins championships, MVPs, scoring titles, and this year will lead the league in assists. He is bigger and stronger than MJ. He’s also a better rebounder and passer. He’s already played 20 percent more games than Michael and he’s still playing at an MVP level.
There is no “starting five” in my ranking, only a top five. This is positionless basketball. A disproportionate number of “best ever” players are centers. So after Wilt, LeBron, and Michael, I have to include Russell and Kareem in the pentagon of hoop prowess. Which gives us three centers in the top five.
Kobe makes it into my second five, alongside Magic, Bird, Shaq, and Robertson (who averaged a triple-double for a full season). Kobe makes this list at the difficult exclusion of Jerry West, Tim Duncan, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, Dirk Nowitzki, and several of the NBA greats currently playing.
Kobe scored 60 points in the last game of his career in 2016. That beats Williams hitting a home run in his final plate appearance in the big leagues.
While his sport grieves and his life is explored in a nonstop national narrative, Kobe Bryant’s basketball skills need not be enlarged in death. He goes down in history as one of the 10 best players who ever lived.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org