After spending his entire NBA career empowering others, Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson threw another assist.
Just before Kobe Bryant played his final game of an accomplished 20-year career, Johnson stood at center court and gushed about Bryant’s five NBA championships, his prolific scoring and his ability to play through countless injuries. Johnson then offered his opinion on where Bryant stood among the Lakers’ stars.
“He’s the greatest to wear purple and gold,” Johnson said five years ago before Bryant then scored 60 points in his last game. Bold words considering Johnson also won five NBA titles with the Lakers along with three regular-season MVPs and three Finals MVPs.
Bryant will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Saturday, nearly 16 months after he died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter (Gianna) and seven others. Bryant’s widow (Vanessa) will speak on his behalf. Bryant’s idol (Michael Jordan) will be his presenter. And Bryant will become enshrined as a first-ballot Hall of Famer without any debate on his credentials.
Are those credentials enough, though, to become known as the greatest Laker ever?
“I always thought it was Magic until I heard Magic say it was Kobe,” former Lakers guard Brian Shaw told USA TODAY Sports. “Once Magic said it was Kobe, I was OK with it.”
Other Laker luminaries expressed less certainty.
No doubt, Bryant’s statue will be constructed outside of Staples Center. The Lakers have already retired his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys. Yet the Lakers also retired jerseys and unveiled statues of their prized point guard (Johnson) and a former player who could make clutch shots before becoming an executive who could make clutch deals (Jerry West). They also retired jerseys and unveiled statues of a big man who dominated with a sky-hook (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), a big man who dominated with his size (Shaquille O’Neal) and an athletic forward who played a pivotal role in the Lakers’ move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles just over 60 years ago (Elgin Baylor).
“It’s hard to say Kobe wasn’t the greatest one,” West told USA TODAY Sports. “But you can’t discard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You can’t discard Elgin Baylor. You can’t discard Shaquille O’Neal. You can’t discard Earvin Johnson.”
You can’t discard Johnson, who set franchise records for most triple doubles (138), most assists in a game (24) and empowered two Hall of Famers (Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy) and countless role players for nearly a decade.
“He was an incredible leader and he made people play as a team because of his unselfishness and incredible feel for the game,” West said. “When I watched him, I used to say to myself, ‘Here is a player that everyone would like to play with because of his ability to lead and to bring players along with him.’”
You can’t discard O’Neal, who won three of his four NBA titles with the Lakers, led the team in scoring for five seasons and won three Finals MVPs. Although he has also proclaimed Bryant as the greatest Laker ever, O’Neal recently admitted on his podcast that he felt perplexed Lakers governor Jeanie Buss ranked LeBron James ahead of him after only winning one of his four NBA titles last season with LA.
“The most dominant player to ever play the game was Shaq,” former Lakers forward Metta Sandiford-Artest told USA TODAY Sports.
You can’t discard Baylor, who ranks among the all-time franchise leaders in rebounds (first, 11,463) and points (fourth, 23,149) as well as most points in a regular-season game (second, 71). Though Baylor lost in the eight Finals he played in, he arguably prevented the franchise from going bankrupt by agreeing to a $20,000 contract as a rookie in 1958 two years before the Lakers moved to LA.
"I don’t think he ever got his credit," West said of Baylor. "People look at his accomplishments and because there weren’t championships associated with it, there wasn’t that kind of recognition."
You can’t discard Abdul-Jabbar, who former Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti argues remains “the most accomplished.” Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points), led the Lakers in scoring for a team-best 11 consecutive seasons (1975-86) and won three of his six regular-season MVPs in a purple and gold uniform.
“That’s a really tough conversation to have because there are so many great players that have played for the Lakers,” Abdul-Jabbar told USA TODAY Sports. “That starts with the original Minneapolis Lakers with George Mikan. He has won five world championships. The franchise has had a lot of success. It’s kind of hard to pick one.”
You can’t discard West, who ranks second on the Lakers’ all-time scoring list (25,192 points) and second-most All-Star appearances (14), recorded the most steals in a game (10) and won the 1972 NBA title in the same season the Lakers cemented the NBA’s longest winning streak (33 games). What West lacked in his Finals record (1-8), he made up for as an executive. He constructed both the Lakers’ Showtime teams that won five NBA championships. He also acquired O’Neal as a free agent and secured Bryant’s draft rights in 1996, a tandem that eventually won three NBA titles. Despite listing Bryant among the most important Lakers, Buss excluded the person who brought him to LA.
“I never paid any attention to that,” said West, who left the Lakers in 2000 before working in the front office in Memphis, Golden State and the LA. Clippers. “That’s not what I stand for. I was fortunate to have a long stint over there as a player, coach and general manager. But I don’t think anyone there is old enough to know I was involved.”
Bryant was old enough, sharing during the 2010 NBA Finals his pick for greatest Laker.
“It’s Jerry West, because of everything that he’s done, as a player and then as a general manager,” Bryant said then. “He’s responsible for Shaq and he’s responsible for myself. He put the whole picture together.”
Bryant clouded that whole picture, however, when he offered a different opinion after Johnson proclaimed him as the greatest Laker before his final NBA game.
“I refused to believe it because Magic is my hero,” Bryant said then. “I don’t think you guys understand how much of a die-hard Lakers fan I was. Magic was all over my wall. I used to wear really big knee pads because Magic wore really big knee pads. I used to practice the baby hook. He is and always will be No. 1 for me.”
No wonder Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame President John L. Doleva called this inquiry “an unfair question.” Those around the Lakers offered more uncertainty than conviction with their answers.
“It’s a tie between Magic and Kobe,” Sandiford-Artest said. “It’s hard. How are you going to choose? They both got five rings. Magic is arguably the greatest player ever to play. But it’s hard to say because there’s so many great players. They have a bunch of GOATs. I can’t pick one. It’s too hard.”
It is not hard, however, to include Bryant in the debate. He remains the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer (33,643 points), holds franchise records for most points scored in a game (81) and 3-pointers made in a game (12) as well as most All-Star appearances (18) and All-Star MVPs (five).
“He was so great that he could’ve adapted to the different eras of the game,” Vitti said. “He could’ve played in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and on up. The way the game is played today? That really wasn’t his game. But he was smart enough and talented enough to adapt to this game where a lot of players can’t.”
After all, West envisioned Bryant’s greatness after telling then-owner Dr. Jerry Buss that “we got the best player in the draft.”
Bryant experienced ongoing challenges with managing his high-volume shooting, his tension with O’Neal and trusting his teammates. But after the Lakers traded O’Neal to Miami in 2004, former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak observed that Bryant “passed the test of time” when he posted his best numbers of his career in 2005-06 (35.4 points) and 2006-07 (31.6).
After ignoring Bryant’s trade demands in the 2007 offseason, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in a midseason deal and then appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals. Once Bryant won two NBA titles out of those appearances, Sandiford-Artest said he viewed Bryant on equal footing with Johnson. Bryant also played more NBA seasons (20) than Johnson, whose 12-year career ended in 1991 after testing positive for HIV before making brief returns in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, the 1992 Olympics, exhibition play in 1992 and 32 games in 1995-96.
“The best argument can be made for Kobe because he won with two different teams, one with Shaq and one with Pau, where Magic won all of his with Kareem,” former Lakers forward Jamaal Wilkes told USA TODAY Sports. “So that’s why I think a strong argument can be made for Kobe being the greatest Laker ever."
What about the off-court contributions?
Johnson played a key role in spearheading the NBA’s popularity in the 1980s. He has raised more than $10 million for HIV/AIDS research and charities through his foundation. And Johnson’s various business ventures have helped spur investment in the urban community.
“You can make a strong argument for Magic there, too,” Wilkes said. “That’s another layer. I couldn’t disagree with your statement you just made there.”
Then again, former Lakers wonder how far-reaching Bryant’s post-basketball legacy would have become.
Bryant significantly influenced the NBA’s current generation of players. After his NBA career, Bryant managed a storytelling company (Granity), won an Oscar for a short film (“Dear Basketball”) and oversaw a training facility (Mamba Sports Academy). And Bryant’s foundation worked with LA. civic leaders to address the city’s homelessness pandemic.
“Seeing all of the love that people had for him worldwide during that time when everyone was grieving his loss? That’s when it really resonated with me how much of an impact he had not only on the game itself, but on Lakers fans,” Shaw said. “So, I would say that Kobe is the greatest Laker.”
Let the debate continue.
“Whenever you mention a Laker great or all-time great,” Kupchak said, “you’ll have to mention Kobe’s name.”