BOSTON, Massachusetts (AFP) — No matter how great a player you are, there is a higher regard for those heroes whose teams win championships than those who talents cannot bring them the ultimate prize.
Just ask the Boston Celtics.
National Basketball Association stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each will make their first appearance in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers when the best-of-showdown starts here Thursday.
The Celtics need only look to their arena rafters to see an NBA record 16 championship banners alongside the retired numbers of the stars who helped make Boston a basketball dynasty in the 1960s and 1980s.
"When you look at all the retired numbers upon the banners, all of them except one has a ring," Pierce said. "In order to be great, to be a legend, you have to win a championship. Those are the things I'm inspired to do.
"I remember my brother always asking me, 'You want to be good or you want to be great?' Those are the questions you ask yourself when you work hard each and every day, the sacrifices you made to get to this point."
Garnett, who struggled for 12 seasons at Minnesota, and Allen, who played 11 total seasons in Seattle and Milwaukee, feel the same hunger as Pierce, making this debut trip to the finals sweet for all three.
"It feels great. We came together. We relate to one another off the court. That's what makes this so special," Pierce said. "We're excited to be here definitely but we'll be even more overjoyed when we win it."
Bryant won three titles in a row with the Lakers starting in 2000 with Shaquille O'Neal providing the power inside. Once "Shaq" departed for Miami, the Lakers struggled despite Bryant's NBA scoring titles.
Now Bryant has something to prove - that he can win the crown as the clear leader of the Lakers after going from the top to the floor and rising again.
"It's a lot tougher the second time," Bryant said. "You are fortunate to be at the top of the mountain and you are back at the bottom again. It's tough. It's tiring. It's frustrating." Hunger is not enough, Bryant warns.
"It's going to be tough," Bryant said. "You have the will to win, which is great from my experience. You can want it more than anybody on the planet, but if you're not able to execute you're not going to win it. You have to execute."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers knows all-too well the need for a crown to validate a career no matter how great the individual glory.
"They are viewed differently," Rivers said. "Coaches are. Players are. Organizations are. That's what you play for.
"That's why Kobe is viewed differently. As tough as people have been on Kobe, imagine if he had never won a title how tough it would be."
Imagine how Garnett feels.
"It helps to have a championship on your resume," Garnett said. "To be with Paul and Ray in this situation and the three of us sort of having the same situation a year ago is very special. It has definitely been a journey.
"The journey is not over but it is really special and I'm honored to be with those guys."
All three have understood instinctively that inidividual sacrifices must be made for the good of the club.
"It's about what you are able to sacrifice. The reason the three of us work is because we don't talk about sacrifice, it's something we actually practice. It's our way of life. It's what we do," Garnett said.
"We put the team above everything and the wins above everything. At the end of the day that's all that matters."
Even Bryant can see the hard work, hardship and heartaches that have enabled the Celtics to come so close to their dream even as they stand in the path of his.
"It has taken them a great deal of pain and suffering to get a collection of guys around them that works," Bryant said. "You have to get a little lucky."
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