“If that’s the last image of Michael Jordan… How magnificent is it?”
I still remember Bob Costas’ words as I watched Jordan sink the shot to give the Bulls their sixth title in eight years.
At the time, I was still learning much about the evolving game of basketball, but even then, I could see that I had witnessed something remarkable, something extraordinary, and something unprecedented.
Jordan possessed a combination of talent and skill that I feared I might never see again. Fortunately, that is not so, for there is one player who holds the same gift that Jordan did in his prime. The man they call Kobe.
Kobe Bryant possesses many of the gifts in which Michael Jordan was blessed with. Both have the uncanny ability to score at any moment, both are superior defenders and tremendous leaders, and both have mid-range jumpers that they could sink in a moments notice.
Surely, Bryant is not yet at Jordan’s level, but he is quickly approaching it.
On offense, Bryant is comparable to Jordan. He has the best range of any shooter I have ever seen. His jumper is lethal and his ball handling is superior to that of most point guards. As far as his ability to get to the line, he is, by far, the best in the league.
Like Jordan, when Bryant’s jumper isn’t working, he can drive or draw the foul. In fact, he is arguably a better free throw shooter than MJ ever was. However, when it comes to taking it to the hole, he still isn’t at the point where Jordan was. Jordan took it to the basket stronger than anybody, but Bryant is still improving, and once he gets to the rim, he finishes with authority.
On the defensive side of the ball, it is much of the same. Michael Jordan, although recognized for his offensive play, was a tremendous defender. He was a member of the NBA all defensive first team an astonishing nine times.
Kobe Bryant, with many years left in him, has made the first team six times and the second team twice. He is known around the league as one of the top perimeter defenders, though his defense is not quite as superb as Jordan’s was. But I see in Bryant that same anticipation and footwork that made Jordan so great. Defensively though, Jordan still has the clear edge.
Even looking purely at leadership, Bryant seems to be the apparent heir to MJ. Jordan was a great leader during his tenure with Chicago where he won a plethora of awards. Jordan’s leadership was almost as amazing as his play on the court. He was a true team player who learned to coordinate with another Hall of Fame player, Scottie Pippen. Jordan took hold of the Bulls and made them true contenders for a decade. His premiere leadership led everyone to play their individual role on the team. Not once did Jordan place his arrogance above the team. Bryant is slowly, but surely developing these skills.
After his debacle with Shaquille O’Neal in the early years of the decade, Bryant has now taken over the Los Angeles Lakers and has become the face of the franchise. He is learning to play with his teammates, and because of this, his overall game has risen.
Bryant has become a mentor for young players like Andrew Bynum and is now the “de facto” leader of the ball club. This leadership is a big reason why the Lakers are having so much success this season.
What Bryant brings to the game of basketball is unique in its own way. He possesses those same qualities that made Jordan the best player to play the game. He has range that not even Jordan had. He has developed a jump shot that Jordan only crafted by the end of his career. He has the remarkable ability to score whenever he desires.
The truly scary part is that Bryant continues to get better. He is a budding star in his prime, and he's not even 30.
Kobe Bryant still has a long ways to go before he catches up to Jordan. MJ has won the NBA title six times, league MVP five times, and was an All-Star fourteen times. He has won the scoring title ten times, the NBA finals MVP award six times and has a career scoring average of 30.1 points per game, all of which are NBA records. Bryant still has some work to do on his résumé.
I remember watching Bryant’s 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors and being simply dazzled by his array of shots in which he pulled up five feet beyond the arc; he was hitting fadeaways over two defenders, making shots that one wouldn’t sink in video games.
It was the greatest single-game scoring performance I have ever seen and may ever see. That game alone illustrated the profound ability of Kobe Bryant. It shows that Kobe Bryant is unquestionably the heir to Michael Jordan.
Today, I reflect upon the great performances of Jordan. But I can live happily knowing that there are more of these feats to come.
Jordan’s retirement simply signaled the end of his era. Now Bryant symbolizes a new era – an era of greatness. And I can’t wait to watch it unfold.