LOS ANGELES -- It's not the where of Kobe Bryant so much as the when. We get so caught up in rankings that we don't think of timing. The polarizing properties of Kobe mean the arguments over his place among the NBA greats will continue long into his retirement, so let's take a moment to discuss the one element that's not up for debate: He was the NBA's most important player from 2000 to 2009.
Kobe was the bridge from the Michael Jordan era until the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry took control. Maybe Shaquille O'Neal was more dominant and Tim Duncan provided a more consistent foundation for championships, but Kobe's greatness and popularity made him the most important -- both for the fans and the wave of players that followed him into the league.
"Kobe was my Jordan," said Paul George, who had been on the planet for just more than a year when Jordan won his first championship in 1991. "I didn't really have many moments of watching Jordan, but Kobe was my Jordan. Watching him winning championships, I remember just being at home with my mom, with my grandma, with my dad, just idolizing him. After the game was over, I'd go in the front yard and try to imitate everything I just saw.
"I'm not saying he's better than Jordan, but for me, growing up, that's who I idolized and looked up to. That was the standard. He was the best player, and it wasn't close."
George has been great at putting things in full context lately, lest he be subjected to a barrage of #wellactually tweets, and he framed this one perfectly. Just because Kobe wasn't Jordan it didn't mean he wasn't Jordan-like, that he didn't have just as big an impact to younger folks whose memories of the NBA exist only in HDTV transmissions.
Kobe was the one to bring the lessons he learned from Jordan to the new generation and to inspire them the way he once drew inspiration from Jordan.
Sunday night, in a postgame news conference held to follow up on his retirement announcement in The Players' Tribune, Bryant mentioned some of the players he still speaks to and the lessons he tries to impart. He name-checked Durant, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Like an elderly man who gets excited simply when a younger person bothers to listen to him, he sounded appreciative that they're willing to hear his talking points.
"That means more to me than anything else," Kobe said. "The impact, the mentality, the aggression, the work ethic."
"Aggression" was the word that stood out to me. That's the mentality he specifically took from Jordan, who told him during the first All-Star meeting that Bryant needed to stay aggressive. At first Bryant thought it was unnecessary advice. Of course he'd be aggressive. But as the weeks passed and the games mounted --- back-to-backs, four in five nights, the full grind of the NBA schedule -- Bryant realized how challenging it could be to maintain that aggression.
He made it his signature trait. It's why, in recent years, he has listed Russell Westbrook as the young player who reminds him of himself.
The other legacy Bryant carried from Jordan was TV appeal. The 2004 NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons is the highest rated since Jordan's last Finals appearance in 1998. From 2000 to 2010, the only four Finals that drew double-digit TV ratings all had one star in common: Kobe Bryant.
"Kobe was my Jordan. I didn't really have many moments of watching Jordan, but Kobe was my Jordan." Paul George
Kobe kept the league's glamour franchise in the spotlight. That meant not only sellouts at Staples Center and a gigantic local TV rights deal for the Lakers, it meant tickets sold in every arena the Lakers visited and jerseys sold around the globe.
"Our exposure worldwide, the TV deals and the marketing ..." Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, attempting to frame Kobe's impact. "I can't say you can pin it all on Kobe, but certainly when we go from city to city, every building we go into there are three or four thousand Lakers fans there with No. 24 jerseys on, even in the arenas where we're most hated. And to me, he's a universal sports celebrity. Really transcends athletics. How do you quantify that kind of success and how do you relate that to the success of the NBA? I think it goes hand in hand."
You can't look at the financial health of the league, the exorbitant franchise valuations and national TV rights fees without acknowledging the role Kobe played in it. You can't see the stars of today, even the ones who have surpassed Kobe and expanded the possibilities of greatness, and not acknowledge the distance marker he represented on their journey.
As Kobe's own NBA journey comes to an end, he values process more than results. He referenced the beauty of these ugly last days, because the noticeable drop-off in his skills means he hit great heights in the first place. He enjoys simply being in the conversation with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even if he isn't universally proclaimed the Greatest Laker ahead of them.
He might not have their place. He knows he had his time.