Why Kobe will NEVER be Michael

Forgive me for broaching an already tired, hackneyed topic, but in the context of the NBA Finals, I think this is appropriate.

The comparison seems inevitable: Kobe-Michael. . .Michael-Kobe. Is Kobe better? Is Kobe the best ever? I mean, Kobe scored 81 points one night (on Jan 22, 2006 vs. the Raptors), behind only Chamberlain’s famed 100 for most points ever in a single NBA game. That passes Jordan’s career-high of 69 (on Mar 28, 1990), so logically it follows that Kobe’s the better player, right?

Except that the Cleveland Cavalier team of 1989-90 — on the receiving end of Jordan’s 69 points — finished second in their division that year, and fourth overall in the Eastern Conference.

That team featured the following: Mark Price, who led the league in assists that year and still holds the record for career free-throw percentage; Craig Ehlo, a solid guard/forward who had a deadly shooter’s touch (and often bore the brunt of Jordan’s virtuosic play); and other talents like Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, and Hotrod Williams.

This team was no pushover, and Jordan’s 69 points were unthinkable against such a talented roster.

Now, let’s compare that team to the 2005-06 Raptors, who allowed Kobe 46 shot attempts, including 13 three-point attempts (of which he made seven). That team finished the season four losses shy of dead last in their division. They won only 27 out of 82 games (less than one out of three).

Of course, 81 points is no small feat. It’s hard to achieve even against the worst of teams. But I was a little perplexed when commentators dubbed Kobe’s performance as “the second greatest in history”.

Actually, an even better refutation of this overblown statement is Jordan’s 63-point performance in 1986 — IN THE PLAYOFFS — against the Boston Celtics. Think about it: Jordan playing against Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and the late Dennis Johnson, who was guarding Jordan and was considered one of the greatest defensive guards in the history of the sport.

81 points against a rock-bottom team in the regular season is one thing. A second-year guard blasting one of the greatest teams ever assembled with a superhuman performance on a grand stage is quite another.

Is Kobe likely to score 63 in this Finals against today’s Celtic defensive powerhouse? In the 2004 Finals, Kobe was lucky to get an open lookagainst a ruthlessly efficient Detroit Piston defense.

But beyond this, there’s a more general, and perhaps important reason why Kobe will never “be” Jordan.

In terms of raw talent and physical ability, Kobe might be Jordan’s superior. But what made Jordan the greatest — what distinguished him so definitively not only on the court but in the psyche of sports-spectator consciousness — was his seemingly supernatural ability to will a game into his hands.

No one had a flair for winning like Jordan. No one had such an innate sense of “the big moment”. It didn’t matter what limitations there were, what his performance was like up to that moment, how much better the other team supposedly was. All that mattered was winning. And when it was time to step up, he controlled the fate of the game like a puppetter.

And even more amazing: when you watched it unfold, you got the sense that it was meant to happen. It couldn’t be any other way. It was more than inevitability; it was an indisputable cosmological truth.

Jordan = winner. QED.

And frankly (and I know I’ll alienate some people here), I find Kobe boring. Yes, boring.

When I watch Kobe play, I might momentarily oooh and ahhh at his dunks, his amazing turnaround three-pointers, his swift and seamless moves to the hole. But I sense none of the passion, the personality, and certainly not the fun that Jordan brought to NBA basketball. And it makes sense, considering how self-absorbed, arrogant, and narcissistic he is.

Not to say that Jordan’s wasn’t a little of all those things himself, but his arrogance always related to the sport, his profession. It was about getting to the top and doing anything necessary to get there (and stay there). Jordan made everyone on his teams better, because his skills, his enthusiasm, and his drive were infectious. You couldn’t be on a team with Jordan and not want to win. The Chicago Bulls of the 90s are proof, especially the record-setting 72-win team of 1995-96.

By contrast, Kobe has a history of alienating himself from both players and coaches. He even managed to alienate the Zenmaster, Phil Jackson, who seems one of the most unflappable people in the sport.

Overall, he has the air of a prima donna with oodles of talent but no heart.

Maybe this is all a cloaked form of nostalgia, a pining for the halcyon days of my teens, when I would watch NBA basketball religiously. Maybe it’s a fancy way of saying, “I miss you, Jordan.”

But either way, it is, I believe, reflective of why Jordan was so unique, and why we’ll likely never see anything like him again.

Of course, people said that about Julius Erving, and then Michael came along. But it seems unlikely that anyone could outdo Jordan’s optimum combination of talent, drive, charisma, and ability to just plain win.


3 comments so far

  1. Len Zwelling on

    I like it. Sell it!!!! Dad

  2. Andrew Zwelling on

    Um, I agree with most of your statements but to say Kobe is boring is a little extreme. When he does what he does it’s amazing but I do no think anything about him is better than Jordan. I think the 63 during the playoff game is more impressive than Kobe’s 81, but when I think about it, I dont know if I could score 81 points in 48 min. against a pee-wee basketball team!

  3. Lauren S on

    The time it took to read your post was perhaps the longest amount of time i have ever given thought to Kobe or MJ (haha). I’m not a fan of either, and i agree that Kobe is not better than Michael. I think the main reason the NBA (unfairly) compares players is to fill time and get common folk interested. Interestingly enough, no matter how many people Kobe alienates, he’s still absurdly and disturbingly popular all over the country. What i found amusing is that even though the media fueled the 81 point performance hype (a performance which i was impressed by, sadly enough), none of the players in the league seemed to care. The good news for Kobe is that you can make the HOF without being popular among your peers, which he will never truly be. I do respect that he is a great talent, the ‘best individual player in the league’, but i just don’t care about him at all!!

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