It is easy to imagine that for a player, having to choose a favourite championship is a bit like having to choose a favourite child. It is perhaps the nicest problem one could possibly imagine having – after all, it inherently implies that you were one of the few players in history lucky enough to win multiple titles.
Those blessed enough to face this challenge would be quick to tell you how there is no means for comparison – they love them each in their own unique way, and neither could ever be better nor worse than another.
For them, each ring comes with its own set of obstacles and hardships. The level of commitment and perseverance required to win even one title makes it special and district. Certainly for those directly involved, each title is incomparable.
This is not true for fans though.
Not all champions are created equal.
If you are a supporter of a team that has never tasted post season glory, you will disagree vehemently, but I hold by the position that all titles are not the same.
The championship Boston won in 1986 was not as meaningful as it should have been because their blood rivals, the Lakers, quit in the conference finals and didn’t make it to the Finals.
That ’86 Celtic team was perhaps the best team ever assembled, but their championship glory is remembered less vividly than the Lakers’ win from 1987. That is because that ring came via Magic Johnson beating the Celtics, in the Garden, with the baby skyhook. That sets it apart in people’s minds.
When it comes to defining the relative importance of a ring, the details matter.
There are a dozen of other examples of this truth: Chicago’s titles over Utah mean more than those over Seattle; Houston’s championships being devalued slightly because of the absence of Michael Jordan; Golden State’s 1975 win is well remembered precisely because the Bullets team they swept was so heavily favoured; and on and on it goes.
The most recent, and relevant example of this of course is the championship won by the Lakers last season. Point –blank, that title was somewhat diminished in the eyes of Los Angeles fans. Not in that it wasn’t and incredible accomplishment, or something that deserved to be celebrated and remembered as part of history – that is all true. But as a Laker fan, it didn’t mean as much to mean as it should have because of Kevin Garnett injury. A ring against Orlando is incredible, but a banner coming at the expense of Boston…now that is the stuff of legend.
Such it was that last night’s win by the Lakers deserves a special place in the cannon for the organization and fans alike. Kobe Bryant said afterwards that this title meant the most of any of the five he has won because it was the hardest one to get.
Never before had Bryant played in a Game 7 in the Finals. Never before had he had to expend as much energy as he did against this Boston team. And never before had he beaten a hatred rival.
His first ring came at the expense of an aging Pacers squad whose nucleus was making its last run as a true title contender. His second and third came over over-matched Sixers and Nets squads respectively that never posed a significant threat. Last year’s title over Orlando was long on personal redemption, but short on an established rivalry.
This matter more. Because it was the Celtics. Because of 2008. Because it was Game 7.
His legacy changed last night because of how this championship came about. To be honest, it shouldn’t have come about at all.
As the biggest Kobe apologist there is, even I say flatly that he was awful in the game’s first half. He was too wound up, too excited, too driven. His was making his counter-movements too quickly before the defense could react to his first move, and he was taking hero shots to try and knock the Celtics out with one punch.
But luckily for him, his teammates carried him. Ron Artest, who really deserves to have this entire recap be about him based on his performance last night, carried the Lakers with his best game of the season. Pau Gasol was brilliant, and even though he was not as efficient as he can be, was a major difference in how the game’s last twelve minutes played out.
Credit Bryant for finding other ways to contribute though. Yes, his shooting was horrendous (6-24), but he still managed to score 23 points and certainly didn’t just stumble into those 15 rebounds. He may have been too wound up, and forcing everything, but his hustle and determination were clear. If anything, he wanted to win too much, he drive was too strong, to the point that it almost cost him everything.
What this championship does for his place on the list of all-time greats will be debated and discussed for months and years to come.
Is he the best player of his era? Does a fifth title make him the best Laker ever? How close is he to surpassing Michael Jordan? These are all questions that we will dispute and argue about for the entire summer, if not longer.
There will be plenty of time for that in the weeks ahead (so expect it to come from yours truly).
For now though, it can be definitively that this ring means more to him that any other.
It means more to his place in history, and more to him personal. And not just because it puts him one put on his rival and old running mate Shaquille O’Neal, though that doesn’t hurt.
It means more because of who his team beat. And how they beat them – together.