Ever since Phil Jackson assumed control of the New York Knicks front office this past March, one question above all has dogged Carmelo Anthony: How would his triangle stint stack up against those of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant?
Anthony will never be considered in the same class as the other two, of course. The implication has long been that, in the pantheon of Jackson cornerstones, the order is as follows: Jordan, Bryant and...an enormous drop-off.
But, according to Jackson, Kobe has MJ beat in at least one important respect: dedication to training.
Asked by the New York Post’s Steve Serby whether Anthony might live up to the triangle precedents set by his Hall of Fame brethren, Jackson responded thusly:
No. No one can approach that. I don’t expect anybody to be able to model their behavior after that, although Kobe modeled his behavior a lot about Michael Jordan, but he went beyond Michael in his attitude towards training, and I know Mike would probably question me saying that, but he did.
Now, to be fair, Richard Simmons has a really, really good training regimen. That doesn’t mean Richard Simmons is any good at basketball.
Ergo, just because Kobe Bryant had the better off-court or offseason work ethic doesn’t necessarily make him better than His Airness—even if Jordan spent two years of his life playing baseball, which, as we all know, falls right between Halo 2 and bowling on the exercise-strenuousness scale.
I’m kidding! I’m kidding! It’s obviously between bowling and lawn bowling.
Just how nuts-o is Kobe’s work ethic? Take this Reddit anecdote from a man who claims to have been Bryant’s one-time trainer, talking about meeting up with the mercurial shooting guard during Team USA’s pre-Olympics training camp back in 2012 (via former SB Nation columnist Andrew Sharp):
The night before the first scrimmage I remember I was just watched "Casablanca" for the first time and it was about 3:30 AM. I lay in bed, slowly fading away when I hear my cell ring. It was Kobe. I nervously picked up.
‘Hey, uhh Rob, I hope I'm not disturbing anything right?’
‘Uhh no, what's up Kob?’
‘Just wondering if you could just help me out with some conditioning work, that's all.’
I checked my clock. 4:15 AM.
‘Yeah sure, I'll see you in the facility in a bit.’
It took me about twenty minutes to get my gear and out of the hotel. When I arrived and opened the room to the main practice floor I saw Kobe. Alone. He was drenched in sweat as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn't even 5AM.
If it’s true, I don’t know whether that’s impressive or straight-up weird.
At the same time, it’s important to bear in mind that one of Bryant’s chief motivators has long been chasing MJ’s legend—getting that sixth championship, authoring those same career-defining moments and launching himself squarely into the conversation as the greatest to ever play the game.
Back in 2013, ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor underscored precisely this historical tension:
In fact, Bryant has only one MVP to his name, or four fewer than Jordan's sum. Michael has six Finals MVPs to Kobe's two, a 6-0 record in those Finals to Kobe's 5-2, and 10 regular-season scoring titles to Kobe's two.
Spoken or not, Bryant's goal is to beat Jordan's six titles; it's the way the all-timers always keep count. Only when he won No. 5 did Kobe finally concede to reporters, "I just got one more than Shaq. So you can take that to the bank. You guys know how I am. I don't forget anything."
In pursuit of Jordan, Bryant's time is running out. LeBron James is closing hard from the rear, the Lakers are all over the place…
Sadly, it looks as though Bryant—now 36 and fresh off a pair of near career-ending injuries—might never fully close the gap.
Indeed, the only recourse the Los Angeles Lakers have, at this point, is to chase hard after the next couple of crops of big-name free agents in 2015 and 2016, in hopes of pairing Bryant with a superstar capable of co-managing one more championship run.
Still, even if Bryant’s try for six falls a bit short, he has his historical rival beat on at least one front: doing lunges while MJ’s just finishing up the night’s last poker cigar.