Ted Green: Kobe and Steve, an appreciation
That's the Phoenix Suns, giving us a fascinating, ferociously contested, even beautiful conference finals in a true clash of NBA titans.
On one side, there's Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, passionately dedicated to winning a repeat championship with these Lakers, HIS Lakers, in what would be his fifth career title, tying Magic Johnson (and Kareem and Michael Cooper) as the winningest lifetime Lakers ever.
On the other side, Steve Nash. Defying Father Time at 36. A phenomenally conditioned athlete and basketball Beethoven, a prodigal-type court genius who eventually seems to solve all the long, tough, supersized defenses the Lakers and Phil Jackson throw at him.
The emerging story: All the Hubie Brown wannabes in the press corps notwithstanding, it isn't gimmick zones or the Suns' bench or the Lakers casting up too many triples, or even Ron Artest going from Biggest Bonehead Shot to Biggest Basket of His Wacky Career. Those issues matter, good storylines, but they're also mostly the Xs and O's.
No, the emerging story is Nash's Last Gasp, probably the great, old point guard's last and best chance to finally reach basketball's biggest stage, a stage he certainly deserves, a stage he has never once stood on, the NBA Finals.
It's Stevie Wonder, trying to put his fingertips, you might say, on a prize that's been so elusive for him, yet a place, the NBA Finals, where Kobe has already appeared six times, winning four. But you know the Kobester. He's greedy about this winning thing.
This is what the Mamba lives for, his obsession with winning enmeshed in every fiber of his singleminded being, his powerful will standing between Nash and an achievement that the grounded, intellectually curious Canadian must want so much, it hurts, even though he's smart enough to know it's just a game.
I will say, though, that Nash does not, repeat not, need a trip to the Finals against the Celtics or Magic to validate his awesome NBA career.
I would argue in the post-Vietnam NBA, after the Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson generations, Nash is the best point guard in NBA history after you automatically anoint Johnson No. 1. Better even than John Stockton and that's saying a lot.
Magic is everyone's homie, much loved, but his comment as an ESPN analyst that Rajon Rondo is the best point guard in today's NBA is, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, to ridiculous and beyond.
Rondo is as quick as a thought and as tough as you know what, but Nash is one of the greatest shooters ever, in Larry Bird's league. In fact, Nash shoots better with his left hand than Rondo does with his right. And he is a far better passer, too, than the up and coming Celtics' star.
The way I see it, this deathstruggle on Mt. Olympus West only ends one way: In Game 7, with Kobe switching over to guard Nash, mano a mano, over the final five frenetic minutes. Ironically, it might be the man named after a snake, trying to cut the head off the Suns’ snake, their engine, heart, soul and driving force, one Steve Nash.
So if you're a Lakers' fan, you're banking on Kobe's preternatural desire and athletic heart.
Two times out of three in the finals, it's been good enough to get the Lakers to the promised land.
If you like the Suns, you'd love to see Nash get what many would say is rightfully his. The respect that comes with playing in the Finals, where the Suns might even be favored.
But if you're a fan with no emotional investment, you watch both of them, Kobe and Steve, and you just marvel.
My prevailing emotion: Deep appreciation for both.
-- Ted Green
Green formerly covered the Lakers and NBA for the L.A. Times. He is currently Senior Sports Producer for KTLA News.
Photo: Kobe Bryant looks toward Steve Nash during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters