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BILL PLASCHKE

Kobe Bryant is No. 1 in points, but that's all

He's the third-best player in Lakers' history, and it will be difficult for him to pass Magic Johnson and Jerry West.

February 03, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The Lakers are more than a basketball team, they are a social glue, connecting a diverse city with brightly splashed layers of entertainment and excellence.

The Lakers are not about individual statistics, they are about team championships, the annual push by parts that are never greater than the whole, the quiet owner who never closes his wallet, the humble late announcer who never missed a game.

The Lakers have become Southern California's strongest and most enduring sports fabric not only because they win, but because of how they continually sacrifice their egos and agenda in the attainment of that victory.

When the Lakers drop a bedsheet above the floor at Staples Center and adorn it with, "Our team," fans howl because they believe.

They believe it is their team because it is the kind of team they would create for themselves, built with as much hard work as Hollywood lights, filled not only with showmen but neighbors.

Which brings us to Kobe Bryant's 25,208 points.

In the blink of a wide eye, it seems, the kid made Lakers history Monday night, setting the franchise career scoring record against Memphis, passing the great Jerry West in his 14th season, Mr. Clutch outdone by, well, Mr. Clutch.

It was a monumental achievement in an organization where greatness is an expectation, and there are more championship rings than fingers. It was a third-quarter fastbreak dunk that provided first an exclamation point, then a question.

Does this make Kobe Bryant the greatest Laker ever?

Spoiler alert.

No.

Scoring the most points doesn't make Bryant the greatest Laker any more than driving in the most runs makes Steve Garvey the greatest Dodger.

It is about more than that, and Bryant may get there yet, but he's not there now.

He may be the best player in the current NBA, and could wind up as the best player in NBA history, but amid the rich history of his own team, Bryant remains third.

Magic Johnson is first. His five championships are one more than Bryant has won, his revolutionizing of the assist changed basketball, and his leadership in community business development has changed several inner cities. All this while serving as a worthy pioneer in the battle against the former stigma and shame associated with HIV.

West is second. He won only one championship as a player, but then as club executive helped build eight more. As a player, he was such a solid presence, the league's logo is a drawing of his silhouette. As a general manager, he's the one who brought Bryant here in the first place.

Bryant is third, barely ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor. It's third with a bullet. It's third with still no stop in sight.

But the two Rushmore-like figures will be difficult for him to scale. Bryant will never be completely embraced like Magic, or completely revered like West, because what makes him so great is what makes everyone else so unnerved. His killer instinct can be unsettling. His serious demeanor can be intimidating.

And will his teammates ever stop carping about how he doesn't pass them the ball?

How typical that on a night he breaks the record, the Lakers lose and one of his teammates throws a dart at him for shooting too much.

It happened Monday after the 95-93 loss in which Bryant took 28 of the Lakers' 73 shots, an unwieldy 38%. At least one buddy couldn't even honor him for the record without questioning him for the shots.

"I'm proud of him, I congratulate him," Pau Gasol said. "Now we can focus on winning games again."

Gasol was just getting started.

"Obviously we're not making a conscious effort on pounding the ball inside," Gasol said. "So we settled a little bit too much."

A day later, with Bryant not available for comment, both Gasol and Derek Fisher reiterated the idea that sometimes even the greats can try to be too great.

Gasol talked about getting more players involved, and Fisher even invoked exact statistics from the previous night, saying that one player taking 38% of the shots is just too much.

"This is a tough one for me, guys," Fisher said. "But winning is what it comes down to."

We've heard this before. I've spouted it before. But enough already. Bryant's ball hogging has become four-time championship hogging. For now, his teammates should stop moaning and count their money.

You want the ring? You accept Bryant's need for the bling. You want him to have the energy and attention required to make those last-second shots? Then you put up with all the earlier ones.

"From the time I took over this team till probably the time I leave, that's always been an issue," Coach Phil Jackson said Tuesday about Bryant's shooting. "One of our first team meetings was about the fact that Kobe wasn't passing the ball . . . that whole crew, they wanted to sit down and talk about it as a team."

But Jackson said he has no problems with him now.

"That's a fine line that he has to balance himself," Jackson said. "We had a talk about three years ago when he went off on that rampage. . . . He's been very good since then."

He was very good Monday night. What Gasol failed to mention was that, by not pounding the ball inside, Bryant made 57% of his shots and scored 44 points and could have won the game if he didn't actually pass up a final shot.

What Gasol also failed to mention is that despite the loss, the Lakers remain the best team in basketball and the favorite to defend their championship.

I can think of 25,208 reasons why.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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