"No. It was inevitable."
This was Kobe Bryant's response when recently asked if it will mean anything to him to pass Shaquille's O'Neal place on the all-time scoring list. In some ways, this can be taken as little more than a matter-of-fact statement. Bryant's been putting up 20-30 points a night throughout the overwhelming majority of his career, a campaign now 16 seasons strong. Sustained excellence for so long does in fact make these achievements feel like a matter of "when" rather than "if." In that respect, Kobe was presenting the facts, and little more.
But contextually, this milestone represents more than just yet another player exhaling Bryant's dust as he climbs the list. Passing Shaq was inevitable in Bryant's mind, and on every level, before he was old enough to drink a beer. And this doesn't just apply to The Diesel, but any other past or future NBA Hall of Famer. It's a mindset that defines Kobe. It also famously helped lay the foundation for a push-and-pull between the big man and wunderkind respectively imported and drafted by Jerry West as championship run building blocks. This vision resulted in three consecutive titles, but not without enough infighting and drama to fuel the entire run of "The Young and the Restless."
At the core of their issues was a mutual belief in themselves as the Lakers' best player. This consistently divided front made it seemingly impossible for fans and media to accept them as a duo of equal importance, even in the face of spellbinding teamwork and the obvious ways they complemented each other. Similar to today's political landscape or "Aniston vs. Jolie," taking sides became a national -- and seemingly mandatory -- pastime. And most fans and media jumped on "Team O'Neal." Shaq was older (if not necessarily more mature and certainly every bit a pain in the butt as Kobe could be). He was more established. He was also a big man like no other the league had ever seen, while Kobe was the latest wing player forced to play "Is the next MJ?" Phil Jackson typically -- and publicly -- sided with O'Neal as a means of maintaining order in a veteran locker room leaning in that direction to begin with. And yes, the Lakers' offense was in fact built around Shaq.
Do these factors offset entirely how Kobe's presence created more freedom for O'Neal to operate, and countless games closed out by the younger, springer guard with the more reliable free throw stroke? In the real world, of course not. But the world of sports debates are typically framed in black and white terms, which is their beauty and curse. On one hand, "pick one or other other" naturally lends itself to passion, the essential ingredient to every great barroom or barbershop discussion. On the other, nuance, gray areas and context typically have no use here. The goal is to make an "all or nothing" case, and more often than not, Kobe received bupkis.
By the time the time O'Neal was shipped to Miami, the narrative of those championship teams "belonging to Shaq" was basically written in stone. Even with three rings decorating his fingers, Kobe was being asked to prove he could win a championship. And back-to-back titles as a team's undisputed leader still hasn't resulted in popular sentiment awarding Bryant greater "possession" of his first three. Even as someone who blurred the lines between first and second option more than any player in recent NBA history, Kobe remains the "sidekick" in most storybooks. For some, he's just short of a dude along for the ride. Narratives, if allowed to stand for long enough, have a way of becoming history, even if the math is a little fuzzy.
But here's the thing. Even if history persists where those teams "belonged" to Shaq, Kobe owns something larger and perhaps just as impressive.
The Laker franchise.
To whatever degree it can be owned by a player, Kobe does, and more so than anybody besides perhaps West or Magic Johnson. By the time Bryant hangs up his sneakers for good, he'll possibly end up the most "Laker" Laker of any great who ever wore the uniform. And there are a lotta greats who've been a part of this organization. Including Shaquille O'Neal, whose career in purple and gold was pretty exceptional. His number will eventually, and deservedly, be retired, and his time in L.A. will never be forgotten. But his Laker career nonetheless won't resonate in franchise history the same way Kobe's undoubtedly will. That's something Bryant can take to the bank. Even if Shaq gets more credit until the end of time for those three championships, he'll never be remembered the same way as Bryant, despite his best efforts to dominate their co-opted spotlight.
In this sense, it's fitting Bryant passed O'Neal in the first half of tonight's game, the go-ahead bucket a long catch-and-shoot deuce off Matt Barnes' feed. Bryant was never big on waiting behind O'Neal to begin forging his iconic career. Should anybody have expected a leisurely pace while passing him in career achievement?
Why drag out the inevitable any longer than necessary, you know?