Now, before you bite my head off, consider this: When there is a ruler of a kingdom, the ruler's reign must end eventually. How the reign ends is up in the air (death, overthrow, retirement).
When this ruler is no longer the ruler, there is another one to take his place. Always.
It has been six years since Air Jordan retired for the last time. With his retirement, the long standing ruler of the NBA had stood down. So who took up his place?
Kobe. Hands down.
Kobe had been gearing up to take the seat at the thrown for years. His popularity had been off the charts since before he put on an NBA uniform. His most prominent personality traits are his competitiveness and intensity. On the court, he is a cold blooded assassin.
All of these traits were used to describe Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan was known to be the most competitive player in the NBA. His drive to be better than everyone else drove him to train rigorously every day to become the best. For more on his competitiveness see here.
Such competitiveness is said of Kobe. Even from watching his intensity during a game, one can tell that his competitiveness sets him above most of the people he faces. He wants to destroy you on the court. His competitive drive won't let anybody else outwork him. Look here for Kobe's work ethic.
Coach K chronicled Kobe's competitiveness in his book The Gold Standard. Coach K writes that Kobe said "Coach, I want to guard the best player on the perimeter of every team we play." He then paused, still staring Coach K in the eye, and then continued, "And I will destroy them."
Such competitiveness leaked to the other members of the Redeem Team and all the players from that team are better from it. Look at the play of stars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Kobe strives to play great on both ends of the floor. Carmelo and LeBron have gone on to say that this NBA season they have stepped up their defense because of Kobe's example.
That is Kobe's influence on today's players.
I don't even have to mention MJ's influence on basketball.
Kobe and Michael worked so hard during they're career that they built a confidence that was also unsurpassed by everyone else. They knew that they couldn't be guarded. This confidence bothered defenders. Kobe and MJ psych out their defenders before they even touch the ball. They could not be guarded; if anything they had bad games.
Finally, Kobe and Michael were some of the most popular and marketable players to ever play the game.
Michael was a marketing phenomenon. From his lucrative deal with Nike, to the Air Jordan symbol, to the Gatorade commercials with Mia Hamm, Michael was everywhere. He was the face of basketball.
Nearly every child in America wanted to play for the Chicago Bulls. Almost every child loved Space Jam with Bugs Bunny. Even today, there are commercials and songs made about MJ's shoes.
During the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, MJ was treated as a rock star. Everywhere he went, he was swarmed with fans. This was even before the NBA was a big success overseas. MJ helped make the NBA a global phenomenon.
Though not the extent of Jordan, Kobe has had enormous popularity. From his high school days, Kobe has garnered much attention. His swagger, talent and good looks made him almost instantly famous.
It is hard to watch TV today without seeing a Vitamin Water commercial with Kobe. Kobe's Ankle Insurance commercial has almost 600,000 views on Youtube. In China, during the 2008 Olympics, Kobe was clearly the most famous player on the US "Redeem Team". Giant crowds of fans followed Kobe religiously, as shown by the picture above.
Kobe and MJ are the rulers of their respective NBA eras. They are the standard at which players are measured. Whether you like or not, they're popularity has been high for ages and it is only impossible to imagine what the league would be like without them.
Rulers always have successors. Kobe is MJ's successor—and a worthy one at that.