BOSTON -- They are both future Hall of Famers and yet their place in history remains in question. It could easily be these NBA Finals that serve as the determining factor of just how history will view Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.
They are both great. It's that there are different levels of greatness and constantly changing strata of legendary.
|The Larry O'Brien Trophy is right in front of Kevin Garnett. Can he finally take it? (Getty Images)|
It's a fascinating query and the answer is as complicated as the careers and lives of both stars.
Bryant is in the conversation when it comes to legendary names like Jordan, Magic, Bird, Wilt and Derrick Coleman (just kidding on that last one).
Yet he has still failed to win a title without Shaquille O'Neal. If he did win a championship without O'Neal, not only would Bryant be in Jordan's neighborhood, on his block and in his driveway, he'd be in Jordan's basement, watching his big-screen TV and eating his popcorn.
This series is vital to Garnett because without a ring he'd be in the same sentence with Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. That is still splendid company, but if you put all of them in a room there'd be no bling.
A win for Garnett might elevate him ahead of names like Malone, Barkley and others and into a group just behind elites like Olajuwon.
So, who is this series more important to?
For the superstar, Bryant, who can become an immortal?
Or Garnett, who could end all that talk about being one of the greats without a ring?
"Any player who's been above average, if not excellent in this league, it helps to have a championship on your résumé," said Garnett. "It definitely doesn't hurt. To be with Paul (Pierce) and Ray (Allen) in this situation and the three of us sort of having the same situation a year ago to today is very special. It's definitely been a journey. Obviously the journey is not over, but it's really special, and I'm more than honored to be with those guys right now."
Winning the '08 NBA title would be most crucial to whose legacy?
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Bryant was blunt and only half kidding when asked if a great player needs a title to validate his career.
"Depends which club you're talking about," he said. "Are you talking about the Jordan-Magic club? If you want to get in that club, then you have to win. The other club you don't have to win. Depends what club you want to get into, the 21-and-over or the 18-and-under. Depends which one you're looking at."
Thus, in light of Bryant's comments, isn't the answer to my question unequivocally, without a doubt, Garnett?
Bryant, quite simply, already has championships and there are going to be people -- like me -- who, while disliking his selfish Ko-Me persona, already consider him a near-equal to Jordan.
The biggest thing Bryant has to accomplish, in fact, is to become more likeable. He's one of the most polarizing figures in basketball. The league wants its best player to be its most-liked player and Bryant is far from that.
Those are compelling needs, but Garnett's are more primal and necessary.
The standard is unfair at times, but it's the standard nonetheless. A great player isn't considered elite -- part of the Jordan-Magic club, as Bryant stated -- unless there is a ring adorning his wardrobe.
A loss by Garnett would not keep him out of the Hall of Fame (of course) but it would prevent him from -- how did Bryant say it? -- admission into the 21-and-over club.