In the moments after the Lakers beat the Suns to advance to the NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant was asked several questions about the Boston Celtics' and extra motivation. He was asked about playing the Celtics in the wake of the beating the Lakers took in Boston in 2008.
"I didn't give a damn who we played,'' he said. "Didn't matter to me.''
Not true. It matters. The Celtics and Lakers open the NBA Finals at the Staples Center on Thursday night and brace yourselves for an abundance of hype regarding Kobe's mission to win a championship against Boston.
It matters. It always matters.
Kobe has won four championships. He won three with Shaquille O'Neal. He finally won one without Shaq last year, but it was a victory against the Orlando Magic. That's not the same as beating the Celtics.
Especially in the wake of L.A.'s humiliation in Boston two years ago.
Fair or not, Laker greats are measured by how they do when they play Boston in the Finals. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were Hall of Famers, certified members of any all-galatic team. But they never won a championship against the Celtics. Not one in seven tries for Baylor, six for West.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the same issues for a while. He won a championship early in his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, but lost a seven-game Finals series to Dave Cowens and the Celtics in 1974.
Abdul-Jabbar's frustration was compounded when Kareem was part of the 1983-84 Lakers who lost a seven-gamer to Boston. It was a series the Lakers dominated over the first four games. It drove L.A. crazy. Those Lakers hated Boston and they hated the old Garden. Coach Pat Riley complained about fire alarms going off in the Lakers' Boston hotel and overheated locker rooms at the Garden.
When the Lakers finally beat the Celtics in Boston in the Old Garden in 1985, Riley said, "All the skeletons are cleared out of our closet. Lakers owner Jerry Buss accepted the trophy from David Stern and said "This has removed the most odious sentence in the English language. It can never be said again the Lakers have not beaten the Celtics.''
Kareem was named MVP of the 1985 Finals and said it was the highlight of his career. He had beaten Boston. In Boston.
Ditto for Magic. He was a goat when the Lakers lost in Boston in 1984. In a book, When the Game Was Ours, he wrote with Larry Bird and Jackie MacMullan, Magic remembered how he felt standing in the lobby of a Boston hotel the morning after losing Game 7 at the Garden.
"It was the worst night of my life,'' he said. "I told myself, 'don't ever forget how you feel right now.'''
Now it's Kobe's turn. He can tell us that it doesn't matter who the Lakers play in the Finals, but he is a man concerned with his legacy and it's got to bother him that Paul Pierce was MVP of the Finals when the Lakers lost to the Celtics in 2008.
The Lakers blew a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 of that series. They were blown out in the clincher at Boston, trailing by 43 en route to a final score of 131-92. Pierce rubbed it in during the offseason, telling reporters that he was the best player in the world.
We all wrote about the Lakers being too soft. We mocked Pau Gasol. And we dismissed the notion that Kobe was the best. How could he be the best player in the world if he got outplayed by Pierce in the Finals? In two subsequent seasons, this made it easy to anoint LeBron James as the king. And you can imagine how that sits with Kobe.
As if we needed any more fuel, Kobe has an old score to settle with Ray Allen. They dueled frequently when Allen played in Seattle and there was an exchange of elbows during a preseason game. After the skirmish, Allen talked about Kobe's need to show that he could win without Shaq. Bryant responded, saying, "Don't even put me and that dude in the same place.''
In this spring of 2010 Bryant looks like a man on a mission.
He's got the eyes of a killer. He singlehandedly beat the Suns at Phoenix in Game 6. Now he's back in the Finals with his four rings, but he's playing for something more than one for the thumb. This is his chance to do what West and Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain could not do. It's his chance to join Magic and Kareem as Laker stars who beat Boston. It's a chance to complete his resume and certify his legacy. He blew his chance two years ago and he knows it. He may never get this chance again. He can tell us he doesn't give a damn who he plays. But it matters.