I understand the bar room appeal of the All-Time Great debate, the competitive banter between equally-enthusiastic fans who believe that their guy—who, to them, is THE guy—is the best we’ve ever seen.
I get it, it’s fun. It’s intoxicating. It’s the sporting world’s version of a romantic, late-night heart-to-heart. I swear to you, I am not above these kinds of things.
So when the Los Angeles Lakers completed their knockout punch of the Orlando Magic Sunday evening, winning the franchise's 15th NBA title in five games, we became even more vulnerable to two of the NBA’s best “who’s better” debates, one involving Phil Jackson, and the other Kobe Bryant.
Celtics fans will go to their grave inhaling from Red Auerbach’s cigar, proclaiming he of the famous tobacco fetish is superior to any other NBA coach in history. Auerbach, with nine titles to his name, now sits one championship behind Jackson, who celebrated his 10th Sunday by donning a custom made yellow championship hat with the Roman numeral X on the front and his initials on the back.
You could argue that one is “better” than the other, but that argument is silly. How do you compare eras that are decades apart? The league has changed, players have changed, and different factors come into play.
Subjective debates have no finish line, but that is what everyone continually searches for. Sorry, but it’s not there.
Which brings us to Bryant, who finally has a ring for his pinkie after winning his fourth title in Los Angeles. With Bryant at four championships, the Bryant vs. Jordan debate has more fuel than ever before.
Michael Jordan is regarded as the best basketball player ever to walk the planet. He has six championships, five MVP awards, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, nine All-Defensive First Team honors, 10 scoring titles, and six NBA Finals MVP awards to prove it.
Okay, that speaks for itself.
Many people will say that Bryant will never be Jordan, even if he wins two more titles. That’s fine because different people have different memories and perceptions of players and how they dominated the league during their time. That bias comes with being a fan.
Kobe Bryant will never be Michael Jordan, in your eyes. So…who cares?
And that’s my point.
Why do we insist on having these debates? Why do we have to force a player to be somebody he is or isn’t, regardless of what is true? Why are we mesmerized by the molds of legends who have been here and done it, to the point that we want to inject their DNA into one of today’s stars?
Most importantly, why can’t we be satisfied with great players simply being their great selves?
I have never really understood the logic between comparing players, not because I think it is foolish, but because of my tastes and preferences of being a sports fan. I like to take it all in and appreciate great players equally. I usually don’t take the time to pit one player against another, but rather allow myself to become mesmerized in the moment. I find that more enjoyable.
When I think of Jordan, I don’t think of his farewell tour through Washington, where he was barely better than average on any given night. I don’t want to remember His Airness as tired legs and mild explosiveness.
When I think of Jordan, I still envision that one swift flick of the wrist at the top of the key in Utah. That will forever be his crowning moment and the perfect splash to an unprecedented career.
For me, Bryant’s career has been completely different for two major reasons.
First, I believe he has had more help thus far in his career than Jordan ever had. Sure, Pippen is an all-time great, but is that more helpful to a scorer like Jordan than having the most dominant big man in the game, like Shaq? I don’t think so.
I don’t think a wing complements a scorer quite like a dominant center does. A great wing paired with a great scorer is like hot chocolate chip cookies washed down with a perspiring glass of ice water; definitely good, certainly refreshing.
But a great scorer paired with a great center is like those same cookies but with a frosty glass of milk. It just fits a little bit better, if not cradling up to perfection.
Second, Kobe has dealt with pressures and expectations that I don’t think Jordan ever did, at least not to the same extent. Since the day Kobe stepped foot in Los Angeles, he was labeled with the heaviest of burdens to carry as the “Next Michael Jordan."
Since the day Jordan landed in Chicago, he was billed to be the next…what? Anything?
I think Jordan was the first of his kind, a physical guard who didn’t play basketball by the fundamental book (yet could execute anything on the court) and brought a sense of showmanship to his position. His highlight-reel plays were more common from acrobatic forwards.
Dr. J, Oscar Robertson, and many greats came before Jordan, but he wasn’t forced into a preconceived mold like Kobe was. Jordan was allowed to make his own mark without living up to the standard of a legend. In that sense, Jordan was able to freely construct his own legend.
We want to peg LeBron James as the next Jordan only because he is an absurdly talented guy and has accomplished a career’s worth before even reaching his mid-20s.
But LeBron is nothing like Jordan, Kobe, or anyone else. For better or worse, LeBron can only be LeBron. We have never seen a player as physical, graceful, and powerful as LeBron. Bodies that big aren’t supposed to move with that much force and speed.
And while we are here, Dwight Howard isn’t the next Bill Russell, either. Calm down, and let him be Dwight Howard, which could be greater than anything we previously imagined.
Ultimately, we are doing a player a disservice by putting these labels and comparisons on them. Young players, as great as they may be, don’t deserve to be compared to past legends, nor should they have to deal with those expectations.
Furthermore, every player deserves the opportunity to make their own name and leave their own imprint. A player should be allowed to leave a legacy on his terms, not on his predecessor’s.
And what we do in the process is cheat ourselves as fans out of potential greatness. Why even put limits on talents like Kobe, Howard, and LeBron?
Are we afraid that they may one day become so good and accomplish so much that their careers trump those of our childhood heroes?
Are we afraid of new faces rewriting history with disregard to former champions?
I don’t know, but what I do know is that by comparing Player A vs. Player B, we place artificial barriers on our sports.
In essence, we are saying that we have already seen the best that will ever grace the court. That may be true, but do we really want to believe that, and stand by that?
Not me, I want to hang on to that 0.1% chance that we may one day watch a player who is so unimaginably amazing that he makes us forget of the past icons that we adore. I want to hang onto that small mysterious slice of the unknown.
The only way to be sure that we don’t miss anything special is to appreciate every player we have for who he is, and forget who we may want him to be.
Just don’t be the one too hung over on comparisons to see the light.
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at firstname.lastname@example.org.