Is Kobe Bryant's legacy permanently fettered to the comparisons of him to Michael Jordan?
As a fan of NBA basketball, I believe myself incredibly lucky to have lived through, and witnessed, the entirety of Kobe Bryant's career.
The evolution of media and the 24-hour news cycle has afforded the layperson an unnervingly in-depth look at athletes and entertainers.
One athlete whose career began in the burgeoning of the information age, and persists to this day to define his generation, is Kobe Bryant—who will live on as one of the most fascinating NBA players to grace the hardwood.
Not since the days of a racially divided America has there been a more polarizing player in the history of the NBA.
His work ethic is fawned upon by Laker fans and those able to perceive it.
His seeming inability to coalesce with his teammates, a point critics seem to have belabored, and not without reason.
2009 and 2010 were the years of Kobe Bryant. Hardcore pundits, and those looking for an argument against Bryant, will point to his atrocious performance in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals: 6-24. The league's allegedly most "clutch" player (a misconception, by the way; Carmelo Anthony is statistically the most clutch player in the NBA) failed to gather the gumption to will his team to victory.
What the box score won't show is that Bryant tried his absolute best to push his team to victory. If you remember Game 7 (I tried to push it out of my mind as an admitted Celtics fan) it was all on the line; Kobe deferred to his teammates in the closing half and drew fouls, going an (admittedly questionable) 11-15 from the charity stripe.
If it weren't for 2009 and 2010, Bryant's career might as well have been in the pipes. Casual fans would have wrote him off as Shaq's second banana, too selfish to share the ball, too egotistical and caught up in his own perception of greatness to bring his team back to the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The closest career parallel I could think of would have been Rick Barry.
Barry didn't win any popularity contests during or after his career: his accomplishments were certainly prolific, particularly on the offensive end; however, Barry's selfishness and immaturity ad absurdum (including the untimely "throwing" of the 1976 Western Conference Finals), ultimately prevented Barry from doing any significant damage in the "greatest ever" discussion.
While astoundingly gifted, Barry's selfishness overshadowed the needs of the team in a very palpable way. By the way, Barry's number for the majority of his career? 24.
The NBA: Where s#*& happens.
Of course, Kobe's career is far from over, but it's clearly on the decline. Bryant has done everything he could to slow the incline of that fall to a glide.
Further scrutiny of Bryant as a player, and as a person, however, requires one to take a step back and become simply awestruck. Say what you will about Kobe's court hearings and sexual assault allegations during the 2003-04 NBA season, but comedian Dave Chappelle said it best, "Kobe look[ed] like he was playing for his freedom."
Bryant started only two less games than Shaquille O'Neal (67), led the Lakers in scoring and gave forth full effort every night he was on the floor.
Bryant should, and will, be remembered as the player who gave everything he had as long as he knew that the ultimate prize was within reach (I haven't forgotten the 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2009-10 seasons, where Kobe would seem out-of-sync during the regular season).
His strength of will is mesmerizing as much as it is off-putting. When Kobe focused on scoring titles, he averaged the highest single-season average (35.4 ppg) since "His Airness" himself (37.1 ppg); when Kobe focused on winning titles, he found a way to contribute, Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals being a prime example.
Ultimately, how will be Kobe be remembered?
As second only to "His Airness" himself. Regardless of Kobe's accomplishments, whether he wins six or seven rings or not, he cannot climb out from underneath Michael Jordan's shadow.
Quantifying rings, when Jordan took a two-year sabbatical, and when Kobe won three of them with Shaq (who won the Finals MVP all three of those times), is unreasonable.
Kobe never had the lifts that Jordan had, was never as talented as Jordan was and to say otherwise is delusional. What is not disputable, however, is that Kobe did his best to make up for any shortcomings to Jordan (and believe me, that gap is unnervingly small) with a psychotic work ethic, being the first one in the gym and the last one out.
Regardless of what one might do to take away from Jordan's legacy, Jordan's legacy remains. If Jordan hadn't "retired" for two years, the popular assumption is that Jordan would have won eight consecutive titles, at least one more MVP, and two Finals MVPs.
Kobe's resume, even in its current state, and Kobe's ceiling ('00-'01 to the end of '09) does not compare to Jordan's ('86-'87 to the end of '93, and a three-year renaissance from '95-'98).
To say that Bryant is better than Jordan, in any capacity, is to flagrantly disrespect the history of the game.
Among other perimeter players? Kobe stands just below Jordan, and above all others—for the time being.