In business, you can arguably define "greatness" by looking at the numbers.
In his 2001 book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, author Jim Collins famously said "great" companies are the ones whose stock returns beat the market by an average of seven times in 15 years.
But what if you're talking about athletes?
In sports, statistics can be deceptive. A standout soloist can rack up gaudy numbers while his team still loses. But Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant--whose stellar, 20-year career is slated to end next month with his retirement--is the rare athlete who's amassed astronomical individual statistics while leading his team to victory.
In his first 17 seasons, Bryant's Lakers teams won five titles and twice lost in the NBA Finals. That's seven NBA Finals appearances in 17 years, a pace of greatness Collins could surely appreciate. In the remaining 10 seasons, Bryant's teams made the playoffs nine times, advancing past the first round on six of those nine occasions.
The upshot: Bryant has performed for winning teams, all while setting records for individual achievement. He made the All-Star Team 18 times, ranking behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He made the All-NBA First Team 11 times, tying him with Karl Malone. He is also a nine-time All-Defensive First Team selection, tying him with a handful of other greats (Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett).
But on Bryant's path to immortality, what were the key milestones--the moments at which he staked his claim to certifiable greatness? Here's my personal selection of Bryant's five signature moments, going in chronological order:
1. Bryant's rookie season (1997) ends with airballs. The first Lakers team Bryant played on was a good one. The starting backcourt of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones was one of the NBA's best. It was no disgrace that Bryant--still learning at age 18--was coming off the bench behind them.
The Lakers made it to the second round of the playoffs, at which point they faced a mighty opponent: A Utah Jazz team led by Malone and John Stockton. This Jazz squad would eventually reach the NBA Finals before losing to Jordan's legendary Chicago Bulls teams. The Lakers were overmatched from the first. In the fifth and final game of the series, Bryant received more playing time than usual, with teammates Byron Scott injured and Robert Horry getting ejected.
And when superstar teammate Shaquille O'Neal fouled out near the end of the game, Bryant seized the opportunity to step forward and lead. But he wound up shooting four airballs at critical moments--one as the potential game-winning shot in the fourth quarter, and three more in overtime. Though he had choked under pressure, he showed he wasn't afraid to fail. Of this performance, O'Neal said: "[Bryant] was the only guy who had the guts at the time to take shots like that."
2. Bryant leads the comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Finals (2000). By this time, Bryant had come into his own. He was an all-star. The Lakers, led by Bryant, O'Neal, and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, had won 67 games--one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. They seemed to be on the precipice of their first title. But a stubborn Portland Trail Blazers team stood in the way. And in the seventh and deciding game of the series, the Lakers found themselves trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter.
Together, Bryant and O'Neal led the Lakers comeback. Bryant finished the game with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots. And instead of being just another regular-season juggernaut that stalled in the playoffs, the Lakers were on their way to the NBA Finals. And Bryant was on his way to his first title.
3. Bryant delivers in the NBA Finals after O'Neal fouls out (2000). In the fourth game of the 2000 NBA Finals, the Lakers' opponent--the Indiana Pacers--seemed as if they were on the verge of knotting the series at two games apiece. The game went into overtime. Then O'Neal fouled out. This time, Bryant didn't choke. In a story that could've come from a Hollywood script, he made clutch shot after clutch shot and carried the Lakers to victory. He did it on a throbbing ankle, which had caused him to miss Game 3 of the series, a Pacers victory. He was 21 years old.
4. Bryant scores 81 points in a game (2006). In a relatively meaningless regular season game against the Toronto Raptors, Bryant scored 81 points in a 122-104 win for the Lakers. It was the second-highest single-game total in NBA history, exceeded only by Wilt Chamberlain's famous 100-point game in 1962. It was the high-water mark in an exceptional individual season for Bryant, in which he led the league in scoring, averaging 35.4 points per game--only the fifth player in NBA history to exceed the 35-point-per-game mark. While it was not a stellar season for the Lakers, it was a solid one: They finished 45-37 and lost a competitive, seven-game series in the playoffs to a dynamite Phoenix Suns squad.
5. Bryant wins his first title without O'Neal (2009). After a superb regular season of 65 wins--the best record in the NBA that year--the Lakers reached the NBA Finals, where they drubbed the Orlando Magic in five games. It was Bryant's fourth title. Significantly, it was his first without O'Neal, who had already captured his first title without Bryant in 2006. By capturing a title without O'Neal, Bryant put to rest the notion that--for all his greatness--he still needed a teammate of O'Neal's caliber to prevail when it mattered most. The next season, Bryant and the Lakers won the title again, giving Bryant five for his career--one more than O'Neal and just one fewer than Jordan.
Now that's the stuff of greatness.