AUBURN HILLS, Mich.-- I come today to praise Kobe Bryant.
At a time when most are trying to bury him.
It seems last week Bryant, when he saved the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals with that shocking 3-pointer, as he'd done many times before, namely his twin threes in Portland at the end of the season that changed the entire playoff seeding, Bryant was Michael Jordan hitting that game-winning shot against Cleveland and Craig Ehlo in the playoffs. The shot was played over and over again on TV. And so the last few days Bryant has been Jordan again, as the joke here at the Finals goes, the Jordan in Washington. Like Dorian Gray, Bryant was aging but just his game.
Yeah, yeah, he takes bad shots. And he breaks the Lakers' offense a little too often.
Daring to be great is not just hitting the game-winning shot. It's failing, as well, as Jordan has said many times. And trying. This is what truly separates the great ones. They don't ever expect to miss. Or lose.
Jordan wasn't always smart, and he wasn't always in the offense and wasn't always taking the right shot at the right time. Competition, youth and frustration understand that.
With the Detroit Pistons leading the NBA Finals 3-1, Joe Dumars, who has done a magnificent job in building an unlikely champion, was sitting in the stands as his team practiced on the eve of what could be his greatest moment as an executive. It's one thing to win when you have, well, guys like Joe Dumars. And Isiah Thomas, Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant, Jordan, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. But win it all with this Pistons team?
"The biggest statement you can make, without having to say anything, is to win the championship," Dumars said. "Then you don't have to say anything about what you did."
Bryant knows that position. So does O'Neal, Rick Fox and others on the Lakers. There were questions about Bryant's shot selection, which was curious. It's what everyone says when you are 4-for-13 and 8-for-25, as Bryant was the last two games. Fox suggested players should be fined for dribbling more than two or three times. Someone tried to bait O'Neal into a condemnation of Bryant when O'Neal had made 16 of 21 shots in Sunday's 88-80 defeat in Game 4 while Bryant had missed 17 of his 25. "Maybe Shaq should shoot 50 times," Fox wondered.
For his part, O'Neal saw the Kobe slam setup coming and said it was a trick question which he had no trick answer.
"You're not going to get me with that question today, buddy," O'Neal smiled.
So perhaps it was appropriate that it all happened here in The Palace at Auburn Hills, where the Pistons tortured Jordan and the Bulls for so many years until they finally made the Bad Boys go away.
It was 1989, remember that? Dumars does.
Jordan went off for one of those big-shot, bad-shot performances -- 10 for 29 -- in Game 1. But the Bulls won and took a 2-1 series lead before the Pistons laid them out three straight. Jordan was going to do everything he could to win this. Look, the truth is only a few aren't afraid to do it.
It was amusing the other day here to hear Pistons coach Larry Brown talking about Allen Iverson. Brown likes to tweak Iverson now and then, but he admires the competitor in "the little guy." Brown said just about every timeout he had in six years with the 76ers someone would be mumbling about the ridiculous shot Iverson took or all the dribbling he did. And then they'd get to the end of the game and everyone would throw the ball to Iverson and run away.
It was usually that way with the Bulls, especially in the early losing years. So Jordan had one of those 5-for-15 games and the Bulls lost Game 4 to even the series. The frustration of Jordan would boil over from time to time, always in Detroit, where the Pistons shadowed him and collapsed and handed him off from defender to defender in a defensive relay known as the Jordan Rules. Everyone has assignments to defense Jordan. If Sam Vincent beat you, so be it.
It's never worked better than it has in this series. No one on the Lakers but O'Neal and Bryant is averaging even seven points per game in the Finals. No one has scored in double figures in any game but those two. That has to be a dubious record.
So, with Jordan back then, teammates started talking and it got back to Jordan that perhaps some of those shots were ill-advised against Detroit's defense and perhaps a pass or two might've worked. In the next game, Jordan attempted eight shots. Heck, he could've gotten eight shots during a timeout if he wanted. Against Wilt, Russell and Kareem. C'mon. The message was clear: You think it's so easy. Try it.
Yes, Jordan was young then, 26, like Bryant, who will be 26 in August. Sometimes their youth, aggression, ability and desire interferes with their reason. But they are the major reason their teams succeed.
Dumars understands that. Nobody had a better view of Jordan in those years since Dumars was the primary defender, although with plenty of help.
"There are a lot of similarities," Dumars said when asked about the two. "Kobe is a better shooter at 25 than Michael was. Michael became a great shooter as he got older. Those guys are eerily similar to me. When I watch Kobe play, it's as close to Michael as I've ever seen. It's hard to imagine that. I have the utmost respect for his game. He made a play (in Game 4) I shook my head over, a floater away, kissed off the backboard. That's a hard shot to make."
But, Joe, Michael never took shots like that and had games like that!
"Times does a lot of things to people's memory," Dumars said with a knowing smirk. "It makes you think everyone had 40 every night. Mike had some awfully tough ganes in this building, awfully tough games. It's a little unfair to say Michael wouldn't have those games. He wasn't getting 40 in here. He had some good games, but he wasn't getting 40. But he was going to have the ball."
Of course, the argument is Jordan didn't have Shaq. But it's hard to say Bryant does, either. At least that Shaq.
He was that Shaq again on Sunday, having one of those Wilt-like nights when big people bounced away like toys. He had an extra day's rest and the desperation of a great player. It will be interesting to see whether O'Neal can sustain it after playing 47 tough minutes in Game 4. If he can, the Lakers can still be playing after Tuesday.
It's unfortunate how neither seems to fully understand that.
It's not easy for Shaq to put up with Bryant's wicked collection of shots, or for Bryant to put up with O'Neal's diminishing stamina, which was the essential part of the Pistons' game plan. Run the big guy until he couldn't keep up. And then run him some more. It was a track meet to set up in the half court.
But the Lakers are not even here without Bryant. He averaged almost 30 per game after they were down 0-2 to the Spurs. He shot 50 percent and averaged almost six rebounds and six assists. He had 31 points and 10 assists to close out the Rockets. He had 31 points in the big Game 4 win that effectively closed out the Timberwolves.
Yeah, Bryant doesn't always throw the ball to ONeal when it looks like he has the advantage, but O'Neal doesn't always come to get it, work for his position and power up like he did in Game 4. Sure, Bryant handles the ball too much at times and takes some of the most curious shots. But they often go in. It's what you have to live with sometimes when you have a creative genius of the game. Guys like Fox and Fisher don't make many mistakes. But they don't bail the team out either, Fisher's point-oh-four miracle notwithstanding.
Most teams would be dead now if they were in the Lakers' position with injured and ineffective players. They're not because they have players like O'Neal and Bryant. So you have to put up with the unconventional and hope they'll grow up like Jordan did.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.