It was 15 years ago that Kobe Bryant was drafted into the National Basketball Association by the Charlotte Hornets, only to shortly after be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac. Bryant was the first-ever guard to be taken out of high school at the time. He was just a 17-year-old kid with a former NBA pro as a dad.
At the time of his debut in 1996, no one in the world, besides Bryant himself, perhaps, expected that well over a decade later, this young, high-flying kid from 76ers">76ers">76ers">76ers">Philadelphia would one day be compared to Michael Jordan about as often as the sun comes up.
The popular argument amongst NBA fans for the last few years has been Kobe vs. LeBron—who's better?
However, when you speak historically, the real argument is Kobe vs Jordan.
Bulls fans wont like it, because to them and 95 percent of basketball fans in the United States, Michael Jordan is immortal. He is an untouchable figure that no one can ever match, so the comparison between the two isn’t a comparison at all, it’s just nonsense.
While Bryant has not matched MJ yet, there is no doubt he is frighteningly close. Bryant is on the heels of the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball, and the world is having a hard time admitting it, but it’s the truth.
We know that from now until the end of time, anytime you discuss the greatest players in NBA history, Kobe and MJ will always be mentioned in the same breath. There is no escaping it. The problem with this comparison, however, is that this is the one scenario in his life where Bryant can’t do what he does best: win.
Michael Jordan is to basketball fans what Marc Okrand is to Klingons all across the globe. Jordan is the Babe Ruth of basketball, and due to his greatness, Bryant has to suffer the unfair consequence of forever being compared to him.
Plain and simple, Kobe Bryant cannot win the debate of “Who’s greater?” against Michael Jordan.
Bryant has five championship rings and is only 32 years old, due to be 33 in August. Michael Jordan finished his career with six championship titles under his belt.
Kobe said in 2010 at the age of 31 that he has 4-to-6 years of solid basketball left in him. In that span, considering Bryant and teammate and NBA star Pau Gasol are both locked up contract-wise through the end of the 2014 season, there is still time for Kobe to make another run at one or more titles.
One more ring for Bryant would leave him tied with Jordan at six apiece. Two more rings, and who knows what Kobe's legacy will be at that point.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, by predicting the future and determining where Kobe will rank among the all-time greats, we need to let Kobe Bryant finish what he started.
You can mention all the stats you want about Bryant and Jordan and compare the two for days on end, but it’s still not going to be a fair argument for one simple reason: Kobe's career is still a few more years away from being over.
As recently as last season, Bryant was considered by many to be the best basketball player on the planet, and yet most people considered him past his prime at the time as well. My question is, then, doesn’t that only speak to his greatness?
Yes, Bryant has beaten the Celtics in the finals, a right of passage for any Lakers legend. Yes, he’s once scored 81 points in a single game. He has two finals MVP trophies to go along with his one regular-season MVP trophy and two scoring titles, All-Star game appearances/MVPs and numerous other statistics that could be rattled off for days.
Why are we, as a society of sports fans, so obsessed with putting a label and a ranking on Kobe Bryant before his career is even close to finished? Let Kobe finish what he started: a career based on one thing, winning.
Winning is the only thing that matters to Bryant, and as if that wasn’t clear to you before, Kobe made that clear again following the Lakers' Game 7 victory over the Celtics last postseason when he told ESPN's Hannah Storm in a postgame interview, “Winning is the only thing that matters to me. It’s the most important thing.”
For now, though, let's let Kobe keep doing what he does: winning and striving to be the best. Let's press the pause button on the Kobe vs. MJ debate, and then we can hit the play button again a few years from now, or whenever Kobe Bryant officially calls it a career.
As much as it might pain Bulls fans and most NBA fans across the U.S., Kobe Bryant is traveling in uncharted territory.
Bryant is creeping on the heels of Jordan, and while he has not quite caught up to him yet, there’s a lot of race left, and there is a chance that Bryant one day ties, or even surpasses Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player to have ever laced them up.