The more I watch Kobe Bryant rip through the NBA playoffs, the more drawn I become to the idea that he has become a little bit better basketball player than Michael Jordan. If you use your eyes, and you're not wearing Jordan-colored sunglasses, you can see it. But no matter how good Kobe becomes, no matter how many MVP's and championships he finishes with, he'll never achieve the same level of public idolatry that Jordan did. There's no way.
I've been reading excerpts from the late, great, David Halberstam's classic book, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." I don't remember much of Mike's heyday with the Bulls, because I was too young; I remember a little bit of the tail end of his career, but even then I wasn't really into basketball. However, I realize and understand that he transended the game and became a cultural icon. Better than anyone else probably could have, Halberstam puts it into words.
Jordan wasn't just famous; he wan't just famous for a basketball player; he wasn't just famous in some places. Jordan was known everywhere. He remains amongst the recognizble faces in the world, but during the 90's he may have been the most recognizable. What American was more famous than Michael Jordan? As Halberstam points out, Jordan's notoriety was greater "in many distant parts of the globe than the President of the United States or any movie or rock star." Jordan was royalty, and no celebrity was more beloved. Women swooned over him, and men and young boys alike wanted to be just like him.
This was for many reasons. First and foremost, obviously, Jordan was given a unique gift, the gift to play basketball in a way that made him seem inhuman, God-like. There was no restraint on his athletic ability, his game was remarkably skilled and well-rounded, and he could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court at any time. If you irked him, you got 40. If you pissed him off, you got 50. That's man-amongst-men cliche, only Jordan was a guard, 6-6 and slender, not a behemoth like Shaq or Wilt. Halberstam best describes Jordan's athletic talent when he describes him as a "genetic fluke."
But perhaps just as important to the Jordan mystique was the way he represented himself off the court. Jordan was handsome . He was well-spoken and articulate. He was immaculately dressed, stylish suits before and after games, and clean-cut. Spotless. He was charming and charismatic, and mostly non-controversial, because he knew how to use that charm and charisma with the media. You can't control all of these attributes, but you can control some of them, and Jordan realized that a person in his position, a global icon, should carry himself with a certain dignity and grace. This was all part of Jordan's gift. He quietly accepted his position, and embraced it, while still maintaining his nonpartisan position. ("Republican's wear sneakers, too," he once said, the anti-Ali, if you follow me.)
Kobe is just as good-looking and eloquent, and he cleans up just as nicely. And as I said, we've reached the point where he's probably become a better pure basketball player, his handle more malleable, his range and offensive repertoire more deep. But nobody sees Kobe in the same way they seem MJ; Lakers fans like myself always stood behind Kobe, right and wrong and perceived wrong, but off the court I don't see him as having any kind of aura.
On the court, he is a master craftsman, even more so than Michael, but outside of that realm he is, in a sense, just an average guy. He's not cool. Every guy doesn't want to be like him. Women aren't crazy about him. Kids love him unfailingly, but that's becuase they are so innocent.
Michael and his image-makers were able to convince adults that he was perfect, that he could do no wrong; Kobe the person is as imperfect and human as they come. Unlike Michael, he seems just like the rest of us. Actually, because of his high-profile and the frequency with which his mistakes and misgivings become open to the public, he seems even more flawed. If Kobe has mystique, it's of a different kind: he's complicated, he's confusing, nobody understands him and nobody ever will. He's more interesting than mystifying.
People make fun of Kobe. He gave himself the nickname of Mamba, but when bloggers call him that, they're doing it to mock him. Nobody made fun of Michael. Nobody mocked Michael. Everybody loved him too much to do that. Jordan was held in awe.
And still is. And always will be. Kobe, on the other hand, never will be, at least not blindly. And that's why he will never match, let alone surpass, Jordan in the eyes of the public. People will be drinking the MJ Kool-Aid until the end of time, so many years from now, even though Kobe was better, it will never really seem like he was.