To Kobe Bryant’s credit, he really could care less about passing Michael Jordan in scoring as he did Sunday in Minnesota, when the eighth and ninth of his 26 points–two second-quarter free throws–moved Kobe into No. 3 on the all-time list.
Bryant now leads Jordan by 18, 32,310-32,292, although he still trails Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by 6,077. Despite appearances and his shot selection, Kobe doesn’t care about scoring. He’s in it to win it. At five titles, he would give all he has achieved for the two more that would give him seven to Jordan’s six.
Not that Kobe would hold out for that much. If he could get Steph Curry to play alongside him for 30,000 of his points, the Lakers wouldn’t have to Ronnie Price at point guard any more.
“Kobe has patterned himself after Michael, and there are a lot of identical things there,” Phil Jackson, who coached both, once told the Los Angeles Times’ T.J. Simers. “But it’s one thing to hope to be like him, it’s another thing to be like him.”
Actually, Kobe was a lot like Mike. Neither he nor anyone else was Mike.
I’ve covered Bryant since he arrived in 1996 (and his father, Joe, as a 76er in the ’70s for the Philadelphia Bulletin). Kobe’s the most exciting player I’ve ever seen, routinely doing stuff that defied belief. Unfortunately, they don’t give you extra points for degree of difficulty. If they did, Kobe would be the greatest there ever was
Modern analytical determinism notwithstanding, it’s nor just numbers or combinations thereof. If all you can do is trot out stats, you must not know what you’re looking at.
Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leading scorer, won six titles with his “sky hook,” considered the game’s ultimate weapon. If that makes him the consensus top big ever–there’s debate on this point–you don’t hear people say he was the best player. He wasn’t endearing. (Smart, though. He did more real journalism in books than most of the journalists who covered him). His effort level could slack off.
(Personally, I don’t know how to rank big players vs. everyone else. They’re like different species. Even modern bigs’ overall games don’t compare with the shooting, ball handling, vision and feel for the game of a Mike or Kobe. On the other hand, without bigs alongside, Mike or Kobe are nowhere.)
No. 2 is Karl Malone, who retired at 40, 1,457 points behind–and might have caught Kareem if he had returned to the Lakers, who begged him to. Rather than occupying a special niche, Mailman is one of the most under-appreciated superstars in NBA history. Tim Duncan is now acclaimed as the greatest power forward ever—a joke because he’s a center, assuming that jumping center, playing high post or low post and guarding the opposing center means anything.
No. 3 is now Bryant. With his penchant for controversy, he’s one of the most followed/least beloved superstars. If he looks like a soul-less gunner, those don’t shoot 45% for their career or averaged 4.8 assists, to say nothing of lasting 19 seasons and winning five titles.
No one may have ever been to the heights that Bryant reached at his zenith, simply because no one else ever did anything close to what he did while taking shots as crazy and making the game as hard.
If you graphed the performance of Jordan, a master of the possible, it would be a straight line across the top of the graph.
Before Jordan, there was no consensus best player. The early greats arrived in pairs or groups: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain; Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West; Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.If you graphed Kobe, who dared what other people couldn’t imagine–and what they would have been jerked out of games if they tried–it would be a series of spikes, zooming off the chart, then plunging back onto it.
Russell, whose 11 titles in 13 seasons has never and will never be matched, is often called “the greatest winner.” That’s a tribute to what he did–and tacit recognition to his limits on offense (as teammate Bob Cousy noted, “Russ couldn’t hit a bull in the ass”). Shaquille O’Neal was a laughingstock for his 53% free throw shooting. Russell made only 56%.
Wilt, who owns the record book—of the 18 highest scoring games in NBA history, he has 12—was called “the most dominating,” in recognition of his sheer impact on a league that had two players over 6-9 when he arrived in 1969.
Jordan arrived in 1984, six seasons into the Magic-Larry era which had begun in 1979 and would continue through the ‘80s, during which time they lorded it over Mike, who wouldn’t win his first title until 1991 (steamrolling Magic’s Lakers, 4-1, in the Finals.)
Of course, Jordan’s exploits awed them too, as when he went for 63 points against the Celtics, the all-time playoff record, after which Bird called him “Jesus disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Proving he could make teammates better, after all, and win a title and scoring title at the same time—no NBA player ever had—Mike got six of them in a row in the six full seasons he played from 1991-1998 (missing one and part of another to play baseball).
Since then, you don’t hear much about anyone else being the best ever. With LeBron James stuck at two and no one else Like That on the horizon, I think Mike’s safe for a while. If Kobe even prompted people to compare them, that’s honor enough for any lifetime, except, or course, Kobe’s .