by Myles Brown / @mdotbrown

A meth addict gave me some good advice once. Or at least I thought it was.

“Image is everything.”

Similar adages, such as “a man lives by his reputation” or “perception is reality” had long existed, but for some reason the junkies resonated with me more. Probably because I saw it on television. Regardless, I heeded the advice because it made sense to me; since so much of your life is left to the control of others, who you believe yourself to be doesn’t matter as much as who others believe you are. The relationships, opportunities, privileges and epitaphs bestowed upon us are all based on who we are perceived to be. So live accordingly.

It wasn’t until later in life that I learned not to take advice from junkies. Image isn’t everything, because image-or perception-is purely subjective. Our thoughts and deeds are left to the interpretation of those who have been shaped by their own experiences. Everyone has their own biases, everyone doesn’t forgive-or forget, for that matter-and it’s simply impossible to please them all. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Which brings us to Kobe Bryant.

This is his 14th season, one which has shown the effects of more than 35,000 minutes of basketball. He’s battled broken fingers, aging knees, a sprained ankle and an ailing back to the cusp of yet another championship, though he may fall short. Again. But no matter the result of this evenings contest-or Thursday’s, if necessary-the most impressive injury Bryant has overcome is one which he suffered quite some time ago. His psyche.

From the moment he slid those sunglasses off and announced his decision to go pro, he was perceived as a spoon fed primadonna. From the moment he entered the league alongside a man who would turn the marketing model on its ear, his racial identity has been questioned. From the moment he dared to question the work ethic of an established, but complacent superstar and the authority of a well decorated, but manipulative coach, he’s been deemed too ambitious. And from the moment he exited that hotel room, he surrendered the benefit of the doubt.

A series of moments, spliced into his highlight reel and the collective consciousness, the effects of which have left us with the man who stands here today, jaw jutted and eyes narrowed. A man who pretends not to give a fuck what you think while making it quite evident that he plays for your approval. Such is the dichotomy of being Kobe Bryant. For there is a distinct difference between being the one in the history book and being the one who writes it.

There are some who will tell you that this evenings events will ultimately shape his “legacy”, another subjective term. You won’t find them here. But alas, Kobe doesn’t give a fuck what we think. Right? Maybe you will.

After all, it’s not like we’re on drugs or anything…..

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by Marcel Mutoni / @marcel_mutoni

Kobe Bryant continues to have what is arguably the most fascinating, enthralling, frustrating, and bizarre career of any NBA Hall of Famer.

Things started off so promisingly, then disaster struck, and then he somehow pulled it all back together and redeemed himself in the court of public (and athletic) opinion.

Tonight — and potentially, Thursday night — he gets yet another opportunity to rewrite his story. His own brilliant, divisive, twisted, convoluted, and endlessly fascinating story.

A loss to Boston this summer provides his critics with plenty of ammunition: he’s no Jordan and never will be; he’s not the greatest Laker; the ’09 title was a “fluke”; he can’t make his teammates tougher and better; etc.

(Key thing to remember in all of this: Magic Johnson won five NBA championships. Along the way, Johnson and his Lakers lost in the title round FOUR times. And last time I checked, no one considers his career a let down in any way.)

A win, an improbable comeback against this determined, defensively-great Boston Celtics team validates what Kobe Bryant’s defenders have always known: he’s right up there with the G.O.A.T.; five titles in seven trips to the championship round can’t be denied; there’s plenty of time left to gobble up more gold trophies; he’s the best player on the planet, and has been for years.

In the end, none of that really matters. And then again, it all matters. Every twist, turn, triumph and defeat.

The man has had — and continues to have — an amazing run. Though his place in today’s game, and in the grand history of the League will continue to be debated breathlessly and endlessly, Bryant’s body of work will stand alone, without need for comparison to other greats.

When we look back on his career, no intelligent person is going to think to themselves, “Kobe was a great player. Could’ve been one of the greatest if only he found a way to beat those Boston teams in either 2008 or 2010.”

Bryant’s story won’t come to an end tonight, or even later on this week. This series — with all of its history, nostalgia, andgrainy video clips — will not define his legacy. It will serve as an important chapter in the grand book of his career and life.

There is plenty of basketball left for Kobe Bryant, many more chapters yet to be written.

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by Ryan Jones / @thefarmerjones

A win would help (a little), and a loss would hurt (a bit), but no matter the outcome of this year’s NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant’s legacy is pretty well set. Short of him winning at LEAST two more championships in L.A., Bean will be remembered in 10 or 20 years for what he was (or, I guess, is): A wonderful basketball player whose athleticism and competitiveness and F-U knack for late-game heroics brought him closer than anyone has ever been to Michael Jordan. We can argue scoring averages and nitpicks stats, but nobody who has actually watched both of them in their prime could argue that Kobe couldn’t do pretty much everything Mike did. He bit the style like a true method actor, Jamie Foxx in Ray, thoroughly believable and nearly as effective.

But again, only nearly.

In the legacy stakes, Kobe’s gate opened too late to ever really give him a chance. Dude didn’t have his own team until almost a decade into his career. Those first three rings will never be his, not in the way all six of the Bulls’ belong to Mike. Those Finals MVP statues will always belong to Shaq, now matter how clumsily he has stumbled to the finish, no matter how insecure he’s been, no matter that he wouldn’t have won them without Kobe. When Kobe got his fourth, it was, in a sense, only his first. It’s not fair, except that it is, and nothing he can do now will change it.

Two wins in the next three days would help, of course. Somehow making it a three-peat next year would help a lot. He’s in that top-10 conversation, maybe even nudging his way into the top half, but even then, he’s not Mike. Not quite. He’d need to top Jordan, do one thing clearly better than the guy whose game he has aped since Day 1. Can you see him winning three MORE? With that mileage, on those knees?

And if the Celtics close this out, and Kobe never wins another ring? He’s still got four. Rare air. Ridiculous totals and averages. Player of the ’00s, by a mile. Best player in what might be the best Draft class ever. Legendary. Either way.

Just not Mike.

Even if he is as good as Jordan, he’ll never be as good as Jordan. I long ago stopped trying to figure the dude out, so I don’t know if he can be content with that reality. For his sake, I hope so.

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by Jake Appleman / @JakeAppleman

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Kobe Bryant has played 1,217 total games in his career up to this point. According to the law of averages–or the average NBA career–that’s already a lot of basketball games. According to the Ed Rooney’s secretary, Kobe Bryant has never taken a day off from school. According to a lot of people–at least according to this email sent to me by Myles Brown–Kobe Bryant’s legacy can be defined, or significantly altered, by what he does in the next one or two games in Los Angeles. According to me, that might be one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard.

Kobe Bryant will still be Kobe Bryant–one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, and a man that occasionally struggles with a protruding jaw–regardless of the outcome of the 2010 NBA Finals. If the Lakers do what the ’94 Houston Rockets did and win games 1,3,6 and 7 of a rugged series against a phenomenal defensive outfit, it will be one more remarkable thing Kobe Bryant has done in his already remarkable career. If he fails, well, he put up a valiant effort–with some single-handed gunslinging for the ages–against a starting five that still hasn’t lost a series when healthy.

The reason we want what happens to Kobe to mean something in the annals of NBA history is because it gives us–the media and fans–the illusion of control over something we have no control of.

Basketball is a team game. If the Lakers lose, it means, in a seven-game series, the Lakers–the team that Kobe Bryant plays for and leads into battle–lost to the Boston Celtics. It means the team with four All-Star caliber players beat the team with two superstars and a fantastic supporting cast. And it means, finally, that you, the beholder, have the choice to place uncredited, irrelevant *importance* on the legacy of a single player because that’s your prerogative as an American in this wonderfully corrupt democracy. Nothing more. Nothing less. You won’t be deciding anything that hasn’t already been decided. You’ll just be talking; something that can, admittedly, be very fun.

Win, lose or draw (brought upon by some sort of awful land oil spill fire apocalypse) Kobe Bean Bryant will still be the NBA’sDexter: the basketball player that kills basketball players.

With maybe twelve exceptions.

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by Russ Bengtson / @russbengtson

Kobe Bryant has played 45,092 NBA minutes in his career. He’s played in 196 playoff games, appeared in seven NBA Finals, won four titles. He’s failed over and over and over again in his… whoops, wrong line. Anyway, he’s done all that, accomplished so much, yet we’re supposed to believe that the next game – or possibly two — will be the ones that define his entire legacy?

Please.

If he wins, what of it? He still has fewer rings than Jordan, only ties Magic (who, by the way, won his five rings in nine Finals appearances. I’m not so good at math, but I think that means he lost in the Finals four times). Either way, win or lose, Kobe winds up with the vague distinction of being “in the discussion” with Jordan as the greatest ever. For your convenience, I’ve transcribed that discussion here:

“You know, Kobe Bryant is every bit as good a player as Michael Jordan was. Jordan always talked about how he wouldn’t have gotten to where he did if he wasn’t able to stand on the shoulders of guys like Doc and David Thompson. Can’t Kobe say the same thing? He built his game off Jordan’s blueprint, and Magic’s, and Bird’s. I know he only has four/five rings, I know he’s lost in the Finals, I know he didn’t win them all as the undisputed alpha dog, but it’s a different era, with different competition. Right? Is it so unreasonable to consider Kobe the best player of all time?”

“Yes.”

“But why? Jordan had Scottie Pippen, who was his near-perfect complement in every way. He had the benefit of playing for Phil Jackson before everyone in the League knew what his methods were. And his opponents were all fatally flawed in some way. Who was the best team the Jordan-era Bulls ever beat? The Jazz? The Sonics? Do any of those teams even make the Finals in the current West? Isn’t it entirely possible that Jordan’s perfect record in the Finals had as much to do with luck as it did with his oft-cited – and Nike reinforced – indomitable will?”

“No.”

“F*ck it, let’s order a pizza.”

Let’s say that the Celtics go on to win one of these final two games. Does that mean Paul Pierce – or Kevin Garnett – is better than Kobe Bryant? Does it mean they want it more? Of course not. All it means is that the 2010 Celtics were better than the 2010 Lakers for two weeks in June.

What if the Lakers win? After all, all they need to do is protect home court. This is what they played all season for. And in order to do that, they need more from Kobe’s alleged supporting cast. He can’t rebound for them, or hit free throws for them, or stop them from taking ill-advised threes. (Well, he could do that, but it would be unprecedented.) Either way, a team will win this Finals.

As for Kobe’s legacy, well, that’s already been determined in the hearts and minds of journalists and fans and Hall of Fame voters everywhere. Is it possible that these next 48 minutes negate the past 45,000? As Kobe himself, might say: No. Not at all.