These days, you could say Kobe Bryant has it made.
He has his five championship rings. Entering his 17th year in the league, his team has as good a shot as any to dethrone the Heat and get him another one. His reputation as a player is so strong to so many that, even when he finishes 85th among qualified guards in effective field goal percentage, NBA general managers still consider him the best shooting guard in the league.
He's even reached that point where his domineering persona is widely considered a good thing—a distinction generally reserved for Michael Jordan and not many others.
Yeah, Kobe Bryant is doing OK.
But for one of his former teammates—the one most closely associated with Bryant's success—you'd be hard-pressed to say the same.
Last we heard, Shaquille O'Neal was carrying out a crusade of bitterness (and xenophobia) as an attempt to bully his way back into the spotlight. How else do we describe a stance that has him taking one of the Lopez twins—he's not sure which one—over Dwight Howard as the league's best center?
No, Shaq has had better days. His last half-decade in the league was so un-Shaq-like, that there is a generation of basketball fans that knows him better for weight issues, injury issues and common-sense issues.
That's why, when the Lakers raise Shaq's jersey to the rafters this coming April, his one-time sidekick should be the one to do the honors. Bryant should do it.
He should do it for his former teammate, who needs it as much as any multi-millionaire, first-ballot Hall of Famer can need a hand from one of his former peers.
He should do it for the Lakers, who have done everything an organization can do to support a player. When they made the (correct) decision to stick with Bryant and trade Shaq, they did so because they were forced into a decision by their two stars who couldn’t get along.
That street went both ways, but by taking one for the team here, Bryant could do the organization a solid after contributing to the unfortunate situation in the first place.
But, really, he should do it for himself.
Bryant doesn’t need much from anyone these days. His beef with Shaq is in the rearview mirror, for all intents and purposes, but this would be the perfect opportunity to take the high road. In his mind, it might be gaining the upper hand, but that’s for him to decide.
Who knows how much resentment he feels for Shaq? Few, if any, of us can begin to comprehend how a brain like Bryant’s works. But one thing we do know is that Bryant knows his place in the game. He cares about his place in history, and being known as the greatest Laker of his generation—which includes Shaq—would cement his place among the all-time greats.
In the minds of Laker fans, representing them with honor as they celebrate the legacy of another one of the franchise’s icons would go a long way towards doing that.
As they’ve gotten older and old wounds have had time to heal, he has said all the right things. So has Shaq.
For an organization steeped in a tradition of greatness, Bryant should take the next step and assume the role of ambassador by humbly acknowledging the contributions of his former teammate with whom he built its latest dynasty.