Has Kobe Bryant Reached the Jordan Level?

Dwight PalmerContributor IJune 3, 2008

There have been several articles by various authors recently either acknowledging or denying that Kobe Bryant has become the equal of Michael Jordan. 

I cannot understand why it would matter or why people care. 

Why is it that some people think M.J. was the best ball player ever and others think differently?  What difference does it make to my enjoyment of the games?  How can any opinion be definitively answered?  Please allow one writer's opinion to go on record.

Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl as quarterback for the 2000-2001 Baltimore Ravens. Does this make him a better quarterback than such championship-challenged quarterbacks as Dan Marino, Archie Manning, or Jim Kelly? Is Derek Fisher, a winner of three rings, a better point guard than Steve Nash?

A team sport is just that, a team effort.  If we were looking at tennis, boxing, bowling, or golf, I would agree with the titles theory.  These examples show just how silly it is to look at league titles in a team sport as a measure of individual talent.

The general wisdom of some gives little credit to M.J.’s surrounding cast of characters (Dennis Rodman was a character).  It has been implied that other than Michael, the Bulls had little talent.  However, the Scottie Pippen-led Bulls came within one blown officiating call from making the Eastern Conference finals in the first year of M.J.’s “retirement”. 

The mere fact that they made the playoffs makes a mockery of the poor teammate’s theory.  The added fact that they were legitimate title contenders without Michael shows this line of thought is a justification for an opinion instead of a conclusion based on analytical thinking.

So, what does the best really mean?  As a former coach, my belief is that it is a combination of traits: Athletic ability, mental focus, desire, work ethic, confidence, and skills. 

At a quick glance there are several players with exceptional athletic ability that never produced at a level commensurate with their ability:  David "Skywalker" Thompson, Darryl Dawkins, and Kwame Brown. 

Athletic Ability is what makes the games exciting.  David “Skywalker” Thompson was a player with the same ability as Julius Erving, and they were contemporaries. 

“Skywalker” slammed from the free throw line, had leaping ability like he had wings on his feet, and displayed gymnastic-like moves while he was in the air. 

Thompson apparently had drug issues and was never consistent. He was thrown out of the league for failing yet another drug test.

Darryl Dawkins was the second player ever taken out of high school, (the first being Moses Malone), and was by far the most athletic big man of his day.  Think Dwight Howard with better jumping ability. 

Dawkins single-handedly brought about the hinged basket, after consistently ripping the rims off the backboard with his dunks. That guy could leap and he could be absolutely terrifying.   

His talent promised a 30 and 20 guy, but "Chocolate Thunder" never displayed the desire to be the best and only displayed his ability when he wanted to make a point. He didn’t “bring it” every game or even every other game. 

Kwame Brown is the least athletic of the three but still has more than quite a few successful centers.  Mark Eaton and Bill Laimbeer come to mind as a comparison.

Brown has, at times, played very good defense and occasionally showed promise on offense.  His case is a prime example of how not to treat high school athletes going directly to the NBA. 

Kwame needed nurturing, in my opinion—he was still in that phase where teenagers get their self worth from peers and authority figures. Washington’s executives did not hide their contempt when he did not perform as expected.  He was never allowed to develop his skill and confidence in the professional ranks.  It is his "I don't believe in myself" mentality that causes him to look inept.

Desire will turn a mouse into a lion, metaphorically.  A prime example of this is "Rudy" Ruettiger of Notre Dame fame. 

Too small and too slow, no scholarship, and without the necessary GPA to enter Notre Dame.  When desire is defined, it should be accompanied with his photograph.

For those who never heard the story or did not see the movie, Rudy succeeded in playing with the Notre Dame Football team after years of single-minded effort.  Taking all six of the indices noted, desire has the greatest effect on success.

Mental Focus is the ability to shut out all distractions and only allow one to envision success.  Sometimes a person in this frame of mind will appear to be short tempered before and during games.  This is because anyone without his mindset is an irritation. 

This player will not accept a distraction with open arms and will allow nothing to come between him and his vision.  Watch the Olympics and you will be guaranteed to see high jumpers, pole vaulters, and long jumpers trying to envision success before each attempt.  Did you think that they were just getting their timing down before moving?

Work Ethic means the athlete will hone his body for strength, speed, and endurance, and work to improve his skills when others are taking a vacation. 

As a youth I was impressed by Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain, who both kept themselves in peak condition.  For Brown, it added to his natural ability and athleticism to be in better condition than his opponents (and teammates). Chamberlain's retirement from basketball was not a result of eroding physical ability.    He still looked like an athlete 20-plus years after retirement.

Confidence is the absolute knowledge in one’s own ability to achieve a desired goal.  In some cases, this may be construed as arrogance. 

Muhammad Ali, Aaron Pryor, Mike Tyson (early), and Joe Namath all had that “swagger” of confidence. 

It is more apparent in boxing and football, because these are very macho sports.  The physical beating, pain and injury are real, the courage to not only endure but to excel is liberating to the male ego. 

Anyone reaching the top in these fields is an alpha male displaying a body language that reflects their status. 

However, “top dog” display is not limited to football and boxing.  My belief is that Kobe Bryant is one of these alpha males.  This display of confidence could infuriate other males because we all harbor some desire to be the best. 

This may account for Bryant's “love him or hate him” public image.  If he were a boxer, I believe that his personality would not allow him to be less than a champion.

Skills are an essential element to any sport.  In basketball the important skills would be ball handling, shooting (scoring), defense, ability to create a shot, leaping, rebounding, and leadership.   We now have a criterion.  Without a standard, any conversation is just that—only talk. 

Let us acknowledge that comparing eras is very difficult.  Rule changes, such as the three-point line in basketball, put Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and others at a disadvantage. 

Having 30 teams instead of eight put the present players and teams at a disadvantage.  This eight-team format is one reason Boston and L.A. played for the title so many times in the 50’s and 60’s. 

Using points scored or championships is not comparing “apples to apples”.  There is also the disadvantage of the players from the ABA whose statistics and championships are ignored by the NBA. 

This latter is purposeful myopia by the NBA on some outstanding basketball history.   I would not like to forget that the best ball players in the '70s were mostly in the ABA. 

This also turns Dr. J’s championship total from three to one, because his two ABA titles don’t count anymore. 

As an aside, I feel that the NBA is missing a golden opportunity to capitalize on the excitement the memories of ABA games engender.  After all, they did merge, as did the NFL and AFL ,where both league's championships and statistics count.

We also have a problem with a generation gap.  Every 10 years or so, the 20-somethings think that the current players are so much better than the ones who came earlier.  

This means that many fans do not remember the ABA and NBA merger.  This merger took place for many reasons, but one of the prominent reasons was to get Julius Erving into the NBA. 

His face was the face of basketball at the time, and his play redefined the game and the position he played.  When he retired, the question was who would be the next Dr. “J”?  We now know that it was MJ who copied his moves and his signature slam dunk.  I think that the Doctor was the better athlete of the two. 

Also, the younger generation either was not old enough or have forgotten that Michael was a ball hog early in his career.  He did not want to give up the ball for any reason and had no confidence in his supporting cast. 

At one point he was installed at the point guard position so he would have to give up the ball. The same things people skewer Kobe for were also applicable to MJ.

Was the Doctor the best ever, or was it Kareem Adbul-Jabbar or Larry Bird?  I enjoy watching Kobe play, and he is my favorite active player.  Jordan has public acclaim for his personality and because of short memories or the youth of today’s fans. 

As Michael eclipsed Dr. “J”, someone will eventually eclipse Michael. 

Is Kobe equal to Michael?  Use the criterion listed, substitute numbers one (worst) – 10 (best) for each, and add the numbers.  Multiply the sum of the indices by the score for desire.

If the scores are done objectively, the answer will follow.  As for me, I appreciate M.J. for what he did and I appreciate Kobe for what he is doing.


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