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Fifth ring gives Kobe special status

Kobe Bryant needed this for vindication.

He needed this for validation.

Throughout the NBA Finals, all we heard was how the outcome would affect Bryant's legacy. He was already one of the all-time greats before the series. But some needed more to be convinced.

Leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a fifth NBA championship -- one for the thumb, if you will -- should do the trick.

And this one was more special than all the others because it came against the Boston Celtics.

The last time the two teams met in the NBA Finals it was no contest. The Celtics wiped the floor with the Lakers, a 39-point beatdown in the sixth and deciding game. The person who took the most heat was Bryant, whose ability to win a title without Shaquille O'Neal came into serious question.

Well, Bryant has now won two straight championships (and two Finals MVPs) without Shaq. And beating the Celtics made it all the sweeter.

Bryant's fifth ring puts him one behind Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and equals the total of Magic Johnson.

It has been a common practice to compare Bryant to Jordan. There have been parallels drawn between Bryant and Johnson because both are Lakers luminaries.

But Kobe Bryant isn't Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant isn't even Magic Johnson, the all-time No. 1 Laker. Jordan is considered the best player ever, a global icon. An argument can be made that Johnson is the best, for he revolutionized point guard play and could have been an all-star at four positions. He also helped save the NBA along with Larry Bird in the 1980s.

There is only one M.J. and certainly there is only one Magic. But Bryant is an original in his own right. He has risen above his contemporaries to become the greatest player of his generation.

He has won more than O'Neal and Tim Duncan. He's done more than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Bryant wasn't at his best in last Thursday's Game Seven, a fact his critics were sure to point out. He made only 6 of 24 shots from the field and 11 of 16 from the line. He did contribute 15 rebounds, showing there are other ways to make an impact.

But not even Jordan ever won a championship without getting a little help from his friends. Bryant needed his teammates to step up. More important, he trusted in their ability to do so.

Ron Artest, the MVP of Game Seven, delivered 20 big points and great defense on Celtics top scorer Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol, who shed the "GaSoft" label he earned in the '08 Finals, capped a brilliant postseason with 19 points and 18 rebounds.

Derek Fisher, Bryant's most trusted sidekick, came through as usual by making clutch shots that had already earned him a special place in Lakers lore. Lamar Odom didn't score a lot, but his rebounding and energy off the bench were uplifting.

There will always be people (aka Kobe haters) who refuse to give Bryant his due. They'll talk about his past unselfishness instead of his growth as a good teammate and leader.

A lot of people have never forgiven him for the divorce from O'Neal. They still dog him for the rape charge that was dropped.

But no matter how you feel about Bryant, you have to acknowledge his accomplishments.

No, he hasn't reached the exalted status of Jordan and Johnson. But at 31 years old and plenty of basketball left in him, Bryant still has time to get there.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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