Kobe and Jordan: A look back
Perhaps the most famous intersection in the careers of Michael Jordan, set for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, and Kobe Bryant came at the 1998 All Star Game. Jordan was in his 13th season, on the tail end of his iconic tenure in Chicago, Kobe his second, just ramping up his in LA. Rather famously, the two went head to head for much of the game, giving the crowd- and NBC execs- the show they were looking for.
"...Beneath the commercial fluff of this game, there was a basketball court and a challenge. There was the daring teen-age pinup, Kobe Bryant, who was staring into Jordan's watery eyes. And the 19-year-old kid, the youngest player to start in an All-Star Game, was on the attack. It was the perfect remedy for Jordan. He watched Bryant's helicopter dunks and playground moves add up to 18 points. But in the end, Jordan had 23 points, a 135-114 victory for the East All-Stars and his third most valuable player trophy.
''He came at me pretty early,'' Jordan said of Bryant. ''I would if I was him. If I see someone that's maybe sick or whatever, you've got to attack him. He attacked. You know, I liked his attitude.''
Jordan saw a little of himself in the player so often picked to slip into his place after he retires. And Jordan had to admit it was a fun matchup...
The fun continues from there. 11 years later, Roberts' description of Jordan's game could just as easily be written about Kobe, while Jordan's comments certainly seem prescient.
...(Jordan) does not leap from the foul line to dunk anymore. He is a complete player now, but it was a process.
''Kobe is going to go through the same thing,'' Jordan said of the second-year Laker. ''When you come to these games, it's O.K. to have the creative game, but with good, solid basketball, you'll be able to play with anyone.''
Bryant is more flash than fundamentals at this stage, making him the perfect All-Star Game participant. But more than that, Bryant seems to have that certain something that makes him Jordan-like. Maybe it is the telegenic quality of Bryant, a player who makes teen-age girls squeal and high school boys grow their hair high like his. Bryant is not a starter for the Lakers, yet he was voted to start for the West.
It took Bryant to bring a somewhat docile crowd of corporate types and celebrities to their feet as he did a 360-degree dunk on a fast break in the first half of a game in which ordinary jumpers brought yawns.
Unless, of course, that jumper came from Jordan. He scored the first points of the game. Then he took Bryant's dunk and raised him a dunk and a couple of fall-away jumpers.
''He hit those two turnarounds,'' Bryant said. ''And I was like, 'Cool, let's get it on.' ''
And it was on. Everyone on the court seemed to clear the way for Jordan to face the future of the league in Bryant..."
While the road has hardly been smooth- even that game was a point of controversy, as Karl Malone was irritated that Kobe at one point waved off his screen in order to go one-on-one with Jordan- no player since Jordan has played the "Jordan role," whether through remarkable athleticism and skill on the floor, the ability to transform himself into a craftier and more versatile player, or the relentless drive and competitiveness to be the game's best, like Kobe.
So while the comparisons and debates don't interest him (nor, given that Kobe is still active and building on his career, do they all necessarily make sense*), it's impossible to ignore Jordan's influence on Bryant's game. It's just too obvious. Take a look at the game clips below. Think those MJ baseline turnaround J's wouldn't look familiar to some of LA's 2009 playoff opponents?
Pretty uncanny. Los Angeles has experienced Kobe for so long that it's sometimes hard to remember he arrived as an (extremely mature) 18 year old, with signs but no guarantees of superstardom. Obviously I'm not the first person to notice the similarities (that train left the station over a decade ago), but it's fun to look back to a teenage Kobe and an aging Jordan to see how basketball's proverbial circle of life operates. Supernatural a player as LeBron James is, he's not cut from the same mold as Bryant or MJ (this is not a dig, but an aesthetic observation), rather something altogether different.
A few years from now, will there be an All Star Game in which Kobe passes the mantle on to the next next Jordan? Would they call him the next Kobe instead?
*With that said, I don't think Kobe will surpass Jordan when it's all said and done. Remarkable as Kobe's career has been and will continue to be, the numbers and accomplishments of MJ are, frankly, kind of absurd. Particularly between '86-'87 and '92-'93, what Jordan was doing, whether measured by traditional stats or advanced metrics, was transcendent. In those years, Jordan never averaged fewer than 30.1 points a game (while going as high as 37.1), never shot below 48.2% from the floor (while five times going above 50%, twice nearly hitting 54%, stunning output for a guard), averaged six assists or beyond four times and 5.5 and up six times, and in all seven seasons led the league in PER and win shares (all with figures superior to Bryant's). And this is without even getting into playoff accomplishments or awards.
Take a look at Jordan's numbers, then Kobe's. The answer, at least to me, seems pretty clear. This is, by the way, more a compliment to Jordan rather than a dig at Kobe. But by the time it's all said and done, Kobe will have done a lot to make it a more interesting discussion, which is a testament to his skill. I wasn't really planning on getting into this- I found the history and the old NYT article more interesting, but figured it would eventually come up anyway, given the forum.