by Ryne Nelson

Can Kobe win it without Shaquille? The answer today clearly is ‘yes.’

Winning three titles before his 24th birthday put Kobe on the top of the world. But he fell, as everyone eventually does. And the seven years following couldn’t have been more painstakingly long as he clawed through turmoil to get back to the top.

He made it again. With the Lakers belonging completely to him, Kobe quickly learned that being on top is nothing to be taken for granted, especially when playing for one of sports most entitled franchises.

All those years of hearing the question from reporters, fans, relatives (everyone, really) made it seem like, as Kobe described, seven years of extreme pain.

“It was annoying. It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. It was just annoying. I would cringe every time. I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it.”

“You can say it until you’re blue in the face and rationalize it until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it. I think we as a team answered the call because they understood the challenge that I had, and we all embraced it.”

With his fourth championship and first Finals MVP, the heavy burden was relived from his shoulders. So can we finally give Kobe the respect he’s deserved for so long? Can Kobe Bryant now, without apprehension or qualifiers, be mentioned in the same breath as basketball’s other all-time greats?

I think the answer today clearly is ‘yes.’