As Kobe Bryant works his way around the league on a farewell tour, he is being celebrated as one of the greatest players of all time.
But is Kobe even the greatest Laker?
ESPN asked NBA executives and coaches who they believed was the greatest Laker of all time, and it wasn’t close. Magic Johnson, who along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar formed arguably the greatest duo to ever play the game, received 69 percent of the votes. Of the 65 respondents, 45 said Johnson was the greatest Laker ever.
“Magic without a doubt," said one executive who also played in the league. “I love Kobe, but Magic brought more to the table."
Bryant and Abdul-Jabbar tied for second with seven votes apiece, and Jerry West, who followed his terrific Lakers playing career with an unparalleled career in the team's front office, received five votes. Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest statistical force the game has ever known, played only five seasons with the Lakers and was named by one voter.
Those who voted for Bryant were surprised the final tally was so lopsided.
“Kobe won two titles without Shaq," said an executive. “Magic didn’t win any titles without Kareem. I thought Kobe would get more love for his five titles."
Both Johnson and Bryant won five championships in Los Angeles -- same as Abdul-Jabbar. However, Abdul-Jabbar won a title in Milwaukee before joining the Lakers in 1975.
In addition to his six championships, Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history, won a league-record six MVP awards, but only three of them came with the Lakers, leaving him tied with Johnson for the most in franchise history.
Some executives said they consider Abdul-Jabbar the greatest player to ever wear a Lakers uniform and arguably the greatest player in league history, even as they consider Johnson the greatest Laker. Others said they believe the two superstars’ contrasting personalities -- Johnson's gregarious, Abdul-Jabbar's grouchy -- play a role in the perceptions of them.
“If people didn’t factor in Kareem’s personality, he would be much more in the mix [for greatest Laker]," said one longtime executive. “It’s hard to argue with either Kareem or Magic, but Kareem’s personality impacts the vote."
West, who may have better statistics -- 27 points, 6.7 assists, 5.8 rebounds per game for his career -- than either Johnson or Bryant, was also in the mix.
“When West joined the Lakers, basketball had just moved to Los Angeles, and the sport really had no followers to speak of," an executive said.
“Jerry came along as this young player, this Olympian, and did things that were just incredible without the benefit of ever, ever having an outstanding center until Wilt came along at the end of Jerry’s career. He put basketball on the map in Southern California and did things that to this day are just mind-blowing, particularly in the playoffs."
The most interesting comparison was made by a general manager who tried to explain why Johnson’s five championships seemed to hold more weight than Bryant’s.
“Kobe [ticks] people off and Magic usually said all the right things," the GM said. “They were different players. [Magic] made everyone better. [Kobe] made the team better. In my heart, I know it’s Magic [who’s the greatest Laker], but Kobe was unreal at times.
“Kobe is like Anakin Skywalker. The force was strong with him and he could not control it at times. He had too many weapons and abused the power. He was loved as a young Jedi, hated during his prime as a ruler, and now everyone’s coming back around at the end. Magic is Yoda, always teaching and making others better -- the leader that elevates others.”