In 2002, Kobe Bryant had a shot at matching Bill Russell's 11 titles.
On June 12, 2002 I stood in a crowded, smelly hallway underneath the stands of New Jersey's Meadowlands. A few minutes earlier, at mid-court, David Stern had presented the Los Angeles Lakers with their third Larry O'Brien trophy in as many years. I was happy for basketball, which can always use mega-dominant stars, but sad for competition. The NBA, it seemed, was getting predictable again, like it was in Michael Jordan's heyday. The Los Angeles Lakers had just swept the New Jersey Nets to win the third straight champsionship of the Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant era. Until further notice, this was the team that was going to keep on winning the big enchilada.
Everywhere you looked in those locker rooms, and in that hallway, there were freshly printed hats, walls sticky with champagne, and really happy looking people in slick L.A. stylings.
And reporters. From all over the world, crowded around whichever famous person was talking. Me? I'm no dummie. I was right up close to chatty and thoughtful legend Magic Johnson, who was presiding over a gargantuan gaggle of TV cameras and microphones. He talked about every topic under the sun -- whatever anyone asked him about -- with the glee of a lifelong Laker. There was no interrupting him for anything.
Until another, large throng of people came rolling down this same dank hallway, cameras and stylings in tow. The throngs shifted, like amoebas, the one letting the other slip by ... barely. As it did, it became clear that the other throng starred Kobe Bryant, in backwards baseball cap and insanely vivacious leather jacket, avec trophy.
Whatever Johnson had been talking about was forgotten. After a beat, the new question became: how many of those is he going to get? At that point Kobe Bryant was not yet 24, and already had three rings. It was hard to imagine how the Lakers could ever be beat again, the way they played. What did Bryant have, twelve, fifteen more years to keep trying?
It was not rash of Magic Johnson to bring up the possibilty that Kobe Bryant might flirt with Bill Russell's 11 championships.
Today it's May 2, 2007, a few weeks shy of five years later. The story of the Laker dynasty's demise has been well told, and the math of Bryant's career has changed dramatically. Once his titles multiplied on their own. Now it takes some deep calculus -- with many variables -- to figure out how he might even get one more before he departs either superstardom or the Lakers.
Bryant is on the cover of the current HOOP magazine, where Jeramie McPeek asks Bryant if he ever misses playing with Shaquille O'Neal. Even though the pair fueded famously, now that Bryant has less experienced teammates, he can't deny a little nostalgia for his old teammates:
Do I miss playing with him? I wouldn't say I miss playing with him, but I think that sometimes I get a little nostalgic and think about the team we had, in particular that second run toward the NBA Finals when everything was just clicking and we were running the system perfectly. ... A lot of the things that veterans do go unnoticed -- the years of experience thay they have go unnoticed, [the things] they do that don't show up in the box score, things that they have picked up through the years that make a world of difference. So that's something that I probably took for granted my first few [years]. I think I just assumed that everybody played the game the same way and had the same level of understanding, but you only gain that from experience.
Translation: his current teammates are not at that level.
The essential conundrum of the Laker franchise is that Bryant is, unlike his most important teammates, performing at his peak right now. How much longer will he be a championship-quality blue-chipper? Certainly, Bryant is hearing the ticking of the clock, as Rich Hammond of the LA Daily News reports:
"We definitely have to get to that elite level, and get to that elite level, like, now," Bryant said last week in Phoenix. "Am I an old 28? No. When I hit 31, I'll probably be an old 31."