All the reasons that others have to diminish this, an upcoming accomplishment that most definitely resonates with Kobe Bryant, are the very reasons he cherishes it.
Bryant is set to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA scoring list in the next week or two. Yes, it has taken him more games, more years, more teams and more tries than it took Jordan to get here.
Bryant isn't apologizing.
"Nineteen years is a long time to be playing, and I've had a different career path than Michael," he said. "It has been a hell of a marathon. I'm really proudest of that."
Unlike Jordan with his baseball break and premature pre-Washington Wizards retirement, Bryant has been a constant. The running at dawn, refining of footwork, punching the clock.
"I enjoy what I do so much," he said. "I enjoy the preparation of it. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out a new puzzle. I take a lot of pride in that, in having the challenge to work through year after year after year with different teams and different teammates and different coaching staffs, trying to work through all that stuff. I feel very fortunate."
Bryant spoke at length with Bleacher Report about Jordan's inspiration and impact on him—including why he'll never share the best advice Jordan gave him and what still irks him about the never-ending comparisons.
Jordan's Key Attribute
Let it be clear first, fundamentally, the admiration Bryant has for Jordan.
Ask Bryant what pops into his head when he thinks of Jordan the scorer, and it's a one-word headline—followed by a stream that can barely keep up with the passion in his voice.
"Aggression. It's not one game or one play, in particular; it's just his aggressiveness. It takes a lot of work, a lot of conditioning, skill and thought to be that aggressive and that assertive. He was relentless, man. He just kept coming after you.
"He just kept attacking, attacking, attacking—and attacking in different ways, from different spots on the floor, with different forms of footwork. Posting, perimeter, versatility..."
Joining Jordan in the NBA
Bryant remembers that when he was a teenager just entering the NBA he was struck by how other players were "terrified, like, deathly afraid" of Jordan.
"It was great for me. I was looking forward to that moment, him being the pinnacle of who I was looking forward to playing against most. At the time I came into the league, all the golden greats were still there—Clyde Drexler, [Hakeem] Olajuwon, [Charles] Barkley, [Gary] Payton, Anfernee Hardaway, John Stockton. These guys were still doing their thing. It was a huge honor for me to match up with all of these guys, see them up close.
"I'm not scared of anybody," Bryant said. "It's more curiosity and such a respect that I want to learn. I want to learn. I'm so curious to learn—still to this day. Just a constant learner. I'm not afraid to ask questions about things that I don't know. I'm not afraid to admit what I don't know. I'll ask questions and try to learn as much as I can."
Bryant wasn't shy. Early in his second year in the league, he already hit Jordan with direct questions on the court in Chicago. They discussed Jordan's fadeaway jumper and his post moves right then and there.
"Talked a little bit about the game. I do that often, though. My conversations with Michael get the most attention, but I do that often. I used to ask Clyde a lot of questions; I asked Stockton a lot of questions. You grow up watching these guys and seeing them do what they're doing, and you want to know how they do what they do and why they do what they do. I wasn't too proud to ask."
His Relationship With Jordan
It's apparent by how much help Jordan has given Bryant over the years that the former respects the latter's own aggression. When asked last year about whom he'd like to play one-on-one in their primes, Jordan mentioned Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony before saying, "I don't think I'd lose…other than Kobe Bryant, because he steals all my moves."
Jordan smiled after the dig, reflective of how Bryant is the one guy he feels comfortable teasing the way male friends do to one another. The feeling is mutual.
"We hit it off very well. He was really like a big brother, and whether it's because we see things in a similar way in terms of our competitive spirit or fire or whatever the case may be, there's an understanding that we have—a connection that we have.
"I don't know if he opened up with me more than he did with other players, I'm not sure. I don't know if other players had the balls even to ask. But we have a really, really good relationship."
Comparing Jordan and Bryant has at times been a touchy subject with the Los Angeles Lakers legend. Years ago, reporters asking Bryant a question about Jordan might have gotten an eye roll or a shake of the head in response.
"The thing that I always bristled at was the notion that I learned everything that I know from Michael. That's just not true. Hakeem Olajuwon deserves a lot of credit; Jerry West deserves a lot of credit. Oscar Robertson deserves a lot of credit. I really was a student of the game and watched everybody.
"I've always welcomed the comparison to Michael if it's in competitive spirit or in terms of records that I may set. I've always been cool with that. To be in that kind of company is…is…is…crazy, for lack of a better term. Rare air."
The Jordan Rules
Here's the current atmospheric pressure reading: Bryant has 32,165 points entering the Lakers-Wizards game Wednesday night; Jordan stands at 32,292. (For the record, Bryant long ago passed Jordan in total assists, that current tally being 6,016-5,633.)
The success Bryant has experienced in his career makes it hard to pigeonhole him as merely a Jordan wannabe. Yet the respect and assistance Jordan has accorded Bryant when he calls with questions has undeniably made him more comfortable.
|NBA All-Time Scoring Leaders|
And in what ways has Jordan helped Bryant most?
"There are a lot of 'em, actually."
Then a pause before Bryant continued what has become ritual for him: not sharing the exact contents of his conversations with Jordan.
Call it the Fraternal Order of Basketball Killers, Lodge No. 23-24.
"To get that kind of information, to me it's like climbing Mount Everest and speaking to a Buddha at the top of the mountain. You want that information? You've got to climb that mountain yourself."
A Mutual Respect
If Bryant, 36, plays only one more season after this one, he won't ascend any further on the all-time scoring chart. No. 2 Karl Malone is at 36,928 points, and No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is at 38,387.
From a personal standpoint, however, passing those guys would never carry the power of passing Jordan.
Asked if he has any relationship with Malone, the friend whom Bryant accused in 2004 of inappropriate comments toward his wife, Vanessa, or Lakers legend Abdul-Jabbar, he is brutally honest.
"With Karl, zero. With Kareem, I haven't seen him since he stopped coaching with the Lakers organization [2005-09]."
True to his platform of learning from anyone and everyone, Bryant used to prod Abdul-Jabbar, when he was special assistant coach for Phil Jackson, to share stories with him about Magic Johnson or Robertson—or even Bob Dandridge, whose name few NBA watchers today will recognize but was a potent wing player and Lew Alcindor teammate in the 1970s.
Although Jackson likes to tell the story that he arranged a 2000 meeting between Bryant and Jordan only to have Bryant shake Jordan's hand and proclaim that he could take MJ one-on-one, Bryant disputes it.
"Nah, that was a little mythology. I've never challenged Michael—or I've never initiated the challenge. With guys like him and guys who have come before me who I learned a lot from, like Jerry West, I would never initiate a challenge and say, 'I could do this to you.' I've learned so much from them. I wouldn't do that.
"But Michael likes to talk, too. I'm not the only one who likes to talk, right? The times that we have talked trash, I haven't been the one who has initiated. We just rib each other; we just kind of joke around about stuff. He knows who I am; I know who he is. Mutual respect."
Along those lines, Bryant now can laugh at himself as he describes why he sought Jordan out.
"I gravitated toward him more, because naturally my personality was a combative one."
Inspiring Young Players
As he said, Bryant's memories of Jordan are not the points, but rather the fierce manner in which Jordan scored those points. And Bryant hopes he has also touched younger players now in the same way—just for a little longer.
"I look at the players who are playing currently and watch the things that they say and the aggressiveness that they play with. And I understand that they grew up watching me play, just as I grew up watching Michael play. That's a great feeling. It really is.
"He and I are very similar in that regard. We challenge everybody."
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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