Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller—a whole cohort of legends trudged off without ever getting a ring, their best years lost in Jordan's shadow. The few Jordan-era superstars who did win titles never beat the Bulls star on the court. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler won during the baseball/No. 45 years; David Robinson and Gary Payton were lucky enough to hang on in the league after Jordan's 1998 retirement.
Kobe, teaming up with O'Neal for three straight titles, seemed as if he might cast the same sort of shadow. Yet for every Jason Kidd or Allen Iverson who was thwarted by the Lakers, there've been Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, who have seen their dreams come true at Kobe's expense. (Karl Malone's mistake was trying to team up with Kobe for his last shot at a ring rather than going against him.) In his yearning for the post-Jordan spotlight, Kobe became the spotlight himself—it's in his presence that the other players, and their championship jewelry, shine the brightest.
There's something crowd-pleasingly definitive about a Kobe Bryant playoff series. When he wins, he wins with full Jordan-esque swagger. You know you've been beaten. When he loses—when he loses, he goes into strange, shot-refusing snits; his teams crumple and get routed; he weeps and the tip of his nose turns pink.
Bryant is also the perfect foil for every sort of rivalry. Dynastic? Tim Duncan's Spurs have four rings to Kobe's three. Cryptodynastic? The critically acclaimed, fast-breaking Phoenix Suns couldn't win a title, but they could beat Kobe. Intrasquad? Since their feud broke up the championship Lakers, Shaq has won a ring without Kobe, and Kobe has none without Shaq. Intergenerational? If LeBron doesn't make the Finals, we'll have to settle for Carmelo. Player-against-coach? Phil Jackson left L.A. in exasperation, Kobe missed the playoffs entirely, and Jackson came back. And a proof by counterexample: The Miami Heat's championship win over the Dallas Mavericks was so forgettable because neither team had to beat Kobe to get there. The whole thing felt unpersuasive.
How did Billups transform his reputation from underwhelming journeyman to tough-minded floor general? By beating Kobe and the Lakers. How did Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell go from roster filler to fixtures on the all-defense team? By being the guys who checked Kobe. He is the defining constant in scoring duels (Kobe's 45 points lost out to Gilbert Arenas' 60), scorer-against-stopper matchups (Kobe vs. Tayshaun Prince), and even conceptual arguments—beating Kobe was supposed to be the proof of the Houston Rockets' stat-nerd theories (though Kobe won).
Even if LeBron James misses his appointment for a showdown in the Finals (or if both of them do), King James has already shown that he too is reliant on the Kingmaker. In February, Bryant scored 61 points against the Knicks to set a new record for Madison Square Garden. Two days later, James followed with a headline-stealing 52 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. One rebound would be deducted on a scorer's correction afterward, but the apparent triple-double had already sent the intended message: Kobe could score like crazy, but LeBron could dominate every aspect of the game.
After the Olympics, we were treated to stories about how Kobe had proven his superiority to his Olympic teammates, especially James and Anthony. They had been awed by his hard work at training and his ferocious defense, and they deferred to him down the stretch of Team USA's tight gold-medal-game win over Spain. The purported moral: "Now you've seen, up close, what makes Kobe the best player in the world." But that thinking is a relic of an earlier age. Michael Jordan broke his challengers, convincing every player in the NBA that no one else had what it takes to be the best. Kobe Bryant, too, tests his opponents' will—but sometimes they pass the test. The real lesson of the Olympics: "Pick up a few pointers from Kobe, and maybe you can take him."