As Kobe arcs into the peak of his athletic career, more and more hoopla will be made of how his tenure in the NBA compared to the man who passed him the superstar baton: Michael Jordan.
Stats are not the story. They matter, but they don't tell the whole story. But this is the world of sports and assists, buckets, steals, etc are going to be there if you're winning. So let's number crunch:
Even with the watering-down effect of Michael's Washington Wizards victory-lap years, his career points-per-game average is 30.1. Kobe is currently sitting at 25.0.
Michael Jordan 1 Kobe Bryant 0
Michael Jordan's highest recorded vertical leap is said to be 48 inches. Kobe's stands at 38 inches. Almost a foot more of air time if this vertcoach.com stat is deemed reliable.
Michael Jordan 2 Kobe Bryant 0
His Airness was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1988, the same year he posted his second highest points-per-game (35.0). Kobe has never been honoured with this defensive title.
Michael Jordan 3 Kobe Bryant 0
Career blocks per game: Michael 0.83, Kobe 0.5
Michael Jordan 4 Kobe Bryant 0
Steals per game: Michael 2.35, Kobe 1.5
Michael Jordan 5 Kobe Bryant 0
Assists per game: Michael 5.3, Kobe 4.6
Michael Jordan 6 Kobe Bryant 0
Rebounds per game: Michael 6.2, Kobe 5.3
Michael Jordan 7 Kobe Bryant 0
Free throw shooting percentage: Michael 83.5%, Kobe 83.9%
Michael Jordan 7 Kobe Bryant 1
Three point shooting percentage: Michael 32.7%, Kobe 34%
Michael Jordan 7 Kobe Bryant 2
Field goal shooting percentage: Michael 49.7%, Kobe 45.3%
Michael Jordan 8 Kobe Bryant 2
Number of championships won: Michael 6, Kobe 3
Michael Jordan 9 Kobe Bryant 2
Number of times voted league MVP: Michael 5, Kobe 1
Michael Jordan 10 Kobe Bryant 2
I could go on and on. I also could note that the only 2 categories in which Kobe beat out Michael are % shooting categories which will most likely fade with his future years, making it likely that Michael will beat him out down the stretch. I could shove in the fact that Kobe's most points in a single game is an impressive 81 and that Michael's biggest splurge was 63 (although in a playoff game no less). At this point, I don't think the stats need to be looked at anymore. Michael played the majority of his stellar career in the late '80's and the 1990's. It was a different era. The game was different, the refs' tolerance to contact was different, the players were not as big, etc. Kobe has played in a time that has greater number of superstars. And teams in the past decade have been more shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of making the playoffs and even winning the big show.
So what does matter? What is the measuring cup to compare these two legendary kings of the court? One must factor the "qwan." Yes, the qwan. If you'll think back to 1997's "Jerry Maguire," Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character, Rod Tidwell breaks it down for his agent. He tells Tom Cruise's character that stats are not enough. He wants the "qwan." The stats, the money, the reputation, the respect, the aura... the qwan.
In terms of pure qwan, I think Michael Jordan is in a sphere of his own. He arrived at a sweet spot in the history of the NBA. Before that over-saturation of marketing which eventually sparked so many sneaker and clothing lines that if we the consumers were to keep up we'd need a small business loan. Today, it seems every NBA semi-star gets his own sneaker, website and clothing contract. Too much. Too often. We don't care anymore.
Jordan on the other hand, introduced us to the athlete-as-megabucks-generator off the court. His brand, Air Jordan set industry standards for marketability, revenue and recognizability. Nike rode (and continues to ride) the Air Jordan pony for record-making profits and longevity. Part of Jordan's marketability has been his nearly spotless image. His reputation was untouchable within the league in terms of relatively small ego, willingness to share the ball, respect for other players and work ethic. He was the real millionaire blue collar athlete. He had all the zip and glitz of a superstar, but a down-to-earth demeanour that almost forced you to root for him.
Unfortunately, Kobe Bryant has overwhelmingly carried the spoiled child aura from early on. He has never enjoyed that family-man, working class image. He was more of a hip-hop star to Jordan's Bill Cosby-esque affability.
Jordan introduced us to air time. He was the first of the NBA's high flying circus era. Kobe has always been great in this arena, and a healthy YouTube session will show that he and Jordan were too close to call in terms of air pizzazz, but Kobe is drowned out by a plethora of ace pilots, whereas Jordan stood out.
When Jordan's star began rising, Irvin "Magic" Johnson had held the title of "numero uno" as NBA's most loved and visible star. He reigned. Jordan essentially eclipsed him. No one has ever really asked "who's greatest, Magic or Michael." It was a given. Michael. With his long limbs, Jordan wiped off the playing field and his action figure stood alone. No one compared him to anyone. They compared everyone to him. Kobe has not been able to body check Jordan in this manner. And at nearly 30, he most likely will not. The question will always be, "how does Kobe stack up to Jordan?" It will never be "how does ___ compare to Kobe?" Jordan is still THE standard.
Another important bio sketch is the drama of Jordan's retirement after 3 consecutive championships. He trails off into minor league baseball, putters around with a baseball bat and long roadtrips and then snaps back to reality: hey, I'm actually good at basketball! Jordan's re-entry into the league had question marks. He was 32. That's not super young. Was his best behind him? Apparently not. He shifted his game, drifting into Magic Johnson basketball quarterback territory and took a team that was not winning and... won 3 more consecutive titles. This simply screams that Jordan was a basketball master. Not just a player. It flavours his legacy with that legendary ore.
But as for me, the real clincher is both players' first NBA title. I watched Kobe win he and Shaq's first championship and... I didn't care. Not for any reason other than the fact that Kobe didn't really care. Too strong? Maybe. But Kobe looked more like a kid getting just another nice christmas surprise. He was ecstatic, but something was missing. In contrast, when I watched Jordan hug his first NBA trophy... I cried. Because he cried. He looked like he was holding onto a new born baby, or a dying relative. There was another dimension to his emotion. Plus, he'd reached the title after years of struggling with a sub-par team. Kobe had been plunked into a fully mobilized ferrari and just-add-water! The Lakers won. Kobe did not have the same story to tell as Jordan did. Kobe had not sweat and bled the way Jordan had. And it showed.
Michael Jordan is the NBA's looming statesman. For years, perhaps forever, he will be the industry's standard for superstardom.
We love you Mike. We miss you.