Tuesday , Dec , 18 , 2007 Christopher Sells

The Future Legends of Today’s NBA

After players stop lacing up their sneakers, after they’ve shot their last jumper, after they’ve pulled in their final rebound, they often fade from the view of the public and begin their new lives doing whatever they’ve chosen for their post-career careers. Some find their way to the sidelines or to some well-publicized front office job. Others find their way to broadcast positions or other notable jobs. Some are remembered just because of who they are. But most of the retired NBA players live their lives away from the scrutiny of the public eye, often relieved that they are no longer under the microscope to be viewed and criticized by all.

When that day comes, what is left are memories. There are trading cards, old newspaper clippings, the occasional Hardwood Classics replay, Heritage Week highlights (don’t get me started) and dates where milestones are honored, but these are just memory aids. These are only things that will remind you of players but will not help you gauge a player’s worth to his team or to the game of basketball.

That’s generally where statistics, awards and championships come in. We can go back and look up the acclaims and accomplishments of a player, especially one that perhaps we have no memory of, and make a bit of an educated guess about who that player was and what they did well. I never saw Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain play, but I know from all the information I’ve seen about them that they were two titans of the game, two players who left footprints that few men after them have been able to fill.

This begs the question: How will some of the greats of today’s game be thought of when, 50 years from now, someone is looking back on the game? Shaquille O’Neal? Tim Duncan? Kevin Garnett? Allen Iverson? Steve Nash? Kobe Bryant?

Each of those players have had plenty of time to establish themselves as some of the best that the NBA has to offer. They also have less career in front of them than they have behind them. So as their playing days wind down, we can start to look at the legacies that they are establishing.

O’Neal and Duncan have been the unquestioned leaders on multiple championship teams. It has long been thought that a ring will distinguish you from other players who did not achieve that goal. Garnett, Iverson and Nash have been named, along with Duncan and O’Neal, the league’s Most Valuable Player at one point or another.

This brings us to Bryant. I think that even Kobe’s detractors recognize that he is one of the most talented players now, and perhaps ever. But what does he have to show for it? He has three rings, but it is well known that Shaq was the main man on those Laker squads. Kobe has scoring titles and records galore, but many of those came at a time when the Lakers were a fringe playoff team. And Kobe has yet to win an MVP award. He still has some opportunity to do so, with his team’s improved play, but the criteria is fuzzy and he may very well retire without one.

Adding to the puzzle is the list of off-court distractions that Bryant has dealt with or been apart of: feuds with teammates, physical altercations with others, perceived arrogance and selfishness, rape allegations, breaking up the Lakers’ dynasty, a tell-all book published by head coach Phil Jackson, trade demands made on the radio, a videotaped parking lot rant against his teammates and members of his organization, and a questionable rap song that is mixed somewhere in there.

It would seem that Bryant has escaped much of the criticism he has faced with mostly fantastic play on the basketball court. It would seem that the court of public opinion accepts supreme talent as an alibi for most of these things. But what happens when the present becomes the past and the future is not sure what to make of Kobe Bryant? Will his almost surefire induction in the Hall of Fame be enough to tell the story of his greatness? Does he need an MVP or a championship without Shaq to cement his place among the legends of the game?

What do you think?

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