There was a time that I was an avid NBA fan. I loved it, especially when the playoffs rolled around. This was when the games mattered most, and the players left everything they had on the court.
When I grew up I had the chance to watch the greatest player to come out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and his name was not Jordan. This guy was better than Jordan in college and might have been better than Jordan as a pro. His name was Len Bias.
Len Bias did things on the court that I have never seen before. I remember seeing him score 6 points in less than 5 seconds to tie a game against North Carolina. One coast to coast and two stolen inbounds passes later, the Terps sent it to overtime. Then Lenny died. A tragedy, not really because he created it. A waste of talent, definitely.
So I started following the career of the skinny guard from North Carolina. I watched him turn into an NBA scoring machine his first few years in the league. He would score, the team would lose. He would lead the league, the team would lose. He would win slam dunk contests and the team would lose.
Enter Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, BJ Armstrong, John Paxon, Bill Cartwright and of course Phil Jackson.
Then Michael grew up, and grow up he did.
He realized that to win, he needed a team. He was beyond a doubt the best player of his generation. Magic Johnson passed the reigns to him in the NBA finals. Using the Triangle offense, the Bulls rattled off three straight NBA Championships from 1991 - 1993 with the help of Jordan's leadership.
Then Michael's father was murdered and he retired from the NBA.
When Michael returned to the Bulls in 1995 it was a team with a different look. Pippen was still there, but the rest had departed. They were replaced by Rodman, Kerr, Kukoc, Harper, and Longley. Phil Jackson still coached the Bulls.
The Bulls went on to another three-peat, Michael won MVP Finals MVP awards 4, 5, and 6. His legacy was solidified. Gone was Air Jordan, the high flying, hand changing, tongue hanging player of old. Now he used his smarts. Developed a deadly fade away jumper, and he dominated just the same.
I used to joke that the Bulls has a formula to winning. Michael Jordan, the best all-around player in the game (Pippen), the good re-bounder (Grant and Rodman), the sub par center (Longley and Cartwright), and the white boy who could shoot three pointers (Paxon and Kerr).
Then he retired.
Then the NBA lockout.
I lost interest when they showed me they had no interest in settling quickly. Weeks would go by and nothing would be heard except they may meet next month. So I said heck with them and stopped watching, focusing instead on college basketball. At least they played like they still loved the game. Even Michael's comeback with my (almost) home team Wizards could not bring me back. It just wasn't right, Michael was a Bull.
I remembered watching another skinny kid from Philly once or twice around that time and quickly realized he had game. He was a high flying scoring machine like Michael was in his early days. I used to say this kid could be the torch bearer when Michael finally retires for good if he would get the mental part of the game down.
His name was Kobe Bryant.
Kobe was drafted by the Hornets and then traded to the Lakers. Showtime had a new hero. He played sparingly those first few years, but his team still made it to the playoffs. This team was made up a little different than the Bulls of old. For one they had a center in Shaq. From 1996-1999 the Lakers could not get over the hump and win a championship.
Then came the Zen Master, Phil Jackson.
Again using the triangle offense, Phil Jackson led Shaq and Kobe to three NBA Championships from 2000-2002. Phil Jackson did what he did best and controlled the egos of his players. They played as a team, and they won. They made one last final push to the finals in 2004, but were unable to bring it home.
Then they fell apart.
Jaskson resigned and it was reported that Kobe was the reason. Shaq was traded and it was reported that Kobe was the reason. As a matter of fact, Phil Jackson, the man who was able to control biggest ego in the history of the NBA in Dennis Rodman, wrote in his book that Kobe was uncoachable.
Since then Kobe has established himself as one of the most dominant forces in the game. Every season he is near the top in scoring. Phil Jackson has returned to coach the team. They have rebuilt the franchise into a legitimate contender.
There have been troubles too, in Kobe being accused of rape. Along with Kobe demanding to be traded and Kobe being suspended.
But Kobe kept scoring, and he has become the face of the Lakers. He is showtime. Like Magic before him, he is the Lakers. He has shown that he realizes he doesn't HAVE to be the one with the ball. He now knows what he has to do to win. He also knows that when the game is on the line, he IS the one who has to be the leader on the floor.
Kobe has grown up.
If the Lakers win the championship this season it will be his fourth. He won his first League MVP this season. He is a 10 times all-star and a two time scoring leader. He is also a 8-time All-Defensive Selection. Over the course of his career he has a scoring average of 25 PPG, 24.2 in the playoffs.
Michael Jordan finally retired for good in 1993. Magic Johnson once said "There is Michael Jordan, and there is the rest of us". When Michael played, people watched. NBA ratings were always the highest when he was playing, but in between his retirements they dropped. This season included. He retired with a scoring average of 30.1 PPG, 33.4 PPG in the playoffs. He was a 13 time all-star and a 5 time league MVP. He is also a 9 time all defensive first team award winner.
Kobe is not Michael, and he should not be compared to him. Kobe is Kobe. Michael was Michael. If Magic and Bird saved the NBA, Michael gave it a shot of adrenaline.
In my personal opinion, Kobe is not better than Michael Jordan. Not because of statistics or awards. Kobe is the face of the Lakers, Michael was the face of the league. Maybe if Kobe rattles off another three peat, stays out of trouble, and shows that he has definitely grown up to be a team leader I may change my mind.
Until that time, I have to agree with Magic on this one.