Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever live.
This isn’t breaking news, in fact few and far between have disputed that since he retired for the second time in 1998 (Let’s leave the Wizards stint out of this.) But 16 years ago is a long time, in today’s age, it’s considered a lifetime.
In the sports world we move on pretty quickly too nowadays, in nearly every aspect. Recruiting used to be when college coaches of any sport sat in high school gyms or in the bleachers on Friday nights, now they’re finding themselves in middle schools.
When the Giants won the World Series back in October, people were already discussing if the Royals (the losers of the series) had what it takes to make another run in 2015, similar to the one they just concluded hours ago in 2014.
In a world that is instant, automatic and new, where “What have you done for me lately” is the status quo, for some reason, we remember the greatness of Michael Jordan when it comes to basketball.
I’ll go twelve rounds, argue until voices are lost defending Jordan as the greatest there ever was, and I never saw him pickup a basketball in a Bulls uniform that wasn’t on ‘ESPN Classic’ or NBATV’s “Hardwood Classics.”
In fact the majority knowledgeable sports fans my age would do the same, everyone I grew up with knew it as a given fact. He defined a generation, changed the culture and the sport itself entirely. But none of us lived it to know. I grew up under the assumption that, “everyone wants to be like Mike” because no one else was better. No else knew better.
As said earlier though, in sports we’re looking for the next best thing, the competitor that we can fall in love with as they try to do the impossible.
For the past eighteen years, Kobe Bryant has been on that mission. The only thing is, did we ever fall in love with him?
Sunday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Los Angeles Lakers are leading 36 to 32 with about five and a half minutes left in the half when Bryant steps to the free throw line. He bounces the ball three times, spins it in his hand and takes a deep breath before rising and firing what will be his 32,292nd career point. Swish.
What few people realize, is that it is exactly the same free throw routine Michael Jordan had.
Bryant grew up admiring MJ just like everybody else into basketball growing up in mid-80’s and 90’s. He has admitted plenty of times that MJ was his idol and mimicked his game after him at a very young age.
But that wasn’t the only thing we would do as Michael did.
The difference between Kobe and everybody else growing up, is that Bryant was gifted with abilities to actually be like Mike.
Both are 6’6″ and hovered around 200 pounds for their careers. Started out as a high-flying shooting guards, cutting and thrashing defenses with athleticism and dunking over anything in sight, getting to the basket at ease. When they began to age, they both turned to the mid-range game to dominate. Backing down defenders then hitting the turnaround fade away jumper. Everything that Jordan did, Kobe would do too.
Yet of all things, what separates them from the rest of the pack is the near-psychopathic competitiveness and drive to win. We know now how much demand Jordan put on himself and his teammates in order to get every ounce of will out themselves each night to win. With social media and news spreading to every part of the world with a click of a button today, with Kobe we know all along and chastise him for it.
A few days ago at practice he called out his struggling 8-16 Lakers squad “soft as Charmin” and criticized his lacking teammates and GM. All of it was caught on video. In Jordan’s time, access like this was rare. Sure it makes Kobe look bad, but he does it normally with every intention to win, even if he and everybody in the league knows that the Lakers may end up with the worst record in the West, he is going into every night like it’s Game 7 against Boston, Jordan was the same, but some say he was on another world of competitiveness, which is hard to fathom regardless.
Most of all, when Kobe finally hangs up the sneakers for good, the only way we can fairly compare these two (besides the endless amounts of YouTube highlight clips of the two, which will never get old) is statistically.
This chart via the FiveThrityEight shows that in nearly every facet Jordan was sufficiently better.
Still Kobe remains the closet thing we will ever see to Jordan, that alone should make him one of a kind. Bryant secures the upper-hand in both 3-point and free throw shooting and don’t forget he owns the 2nd greatest scoring performance we have ever seen with 81 points.
MJ also had the luxury of playing on teams that were nearly in contention his entire tenure with the Bulls, with only three seasons of being under .500 (Still made the playoffs each year.) This allowed him to not force as many shots, become more efficient with them, and trust his teammates more.
Meanwhile Bryant has also played on three sub .500 teams in a much tougher conference the majority of his career, with two of them more than likely going down as the worst in Lakers teams in their storied franchise.
We have forgotten that in 2005-’06 and ’06-’07, Bryant took a starting lineup of Smush Parker, himself, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm to 45-37 and 42-40 records and to the playoffs. All the while he was called self-fish for taking too many shots and never passing enough. Could you honestly and fairly blame him with that supporting cast?
Still, the only thing that will plague Kobe from ever being on the same level of Jordan is 5 to 6, as in the number of championships, favoring Jordan, once again.
Eventually we will look back on Kobe’s career and appreciate it a little more than we do now. With the Lakers organization dealing with a handful of problems both on and off the court and for the majority of Bryant’s career, it is sometimes tough to look past him as being someone other than “the closet thing to Jordan.” That’s completely unfair, even if it is completely accurate.
At 36 years young, he still dazzles fans coast-to-coast. Two years removed from an Achilles heal tear and one year from a fractured bone in his left knee, he still does things like this…
And while he has entered the point of his career where he has “either died a hero, or lived long enough to see himself become the villain” (this Dark Knight reference is eerily perfect for his career at this point) his competitive drive will continue to lead him on the impossible mission of being better than his idol.
Kobe steps up to the free throw line again, bounces the ball three times, spins it in his palms and takes another deep breath. He raises in one fluid motion and drains his 32,293rd point, passing the greatest player ever to live in the most important category in the game.
For once in his life, Kobe Bryant wasn’t like Mike.
He was better.