Michael Jordan's shadow over the NBA will last until either Nike goes bankrupt or Gatorade goes sour. There has been talk of changing the league's logo from Jerry West's dribbling figure to Jordan's dunking airwalker, and other discussions about the entire league retiring Jordan's No. 23.
Thanks to the cable television revolution and his personally-driven sports marketing explosion, there will never be an icon bigger and brighter than Jordan. He's the model to which every new athlete, no matter the sport, is compared.
And yet when Jordan retired the second time, the discussion among pundits and bar stools became the next standard-bearer on the mantle of the NBA. Who could be the next player to captivate the hearts and minds of the entire country from a basketball court?
The first, and biggest, link was made to a high-flying high school kid out of Philadelphia that entered the league just as Jordan was leaving Chicago. Was Kobe Bryant the heir, or should I say "air," apparent?
As Bryant's career began in Los Angeles, he had the ability to develop his game and his body while playing wingman to Shaquille O'Neal. Together, they would win three championships in dominating fashion, establishing their niche in the Lakers' storied history as well as writing their page in the NBA's books.
After the Lakers three-peat, the comparisons between Bryant and Jordan held a little weight. Jordan was the dominant player in his Batman-Robin duo with Scottie Pippen, while Bryant was Robin to O'Neal's Batman (I guess I should only refer to the Big Aristotle as Superman, though, right?). But both tandems won three consecutive titles together.
Then O'Neal went to Miami.
Bryant certainly entered a period in his career when he was very much a reminder of Jordan's younger days with the Bulls. He was an undeniable force in the box score, getting whatever he wanted on a nightly basis. In terms of scoring, Bryant was certainly in Jordan's mold.
But let's not forget that Jordan didn't stop at just three titles, either.
When O'Neal was run out of LA, the Lakers officially became Bryant's team, and the questions around Bryant were always whether or not he could do it "by himself." Of course any educated, rational sports fan or athlete knows that no one person can win a team sport, but the focus in our media-driven society is on the one or two stars on each team.
This past season, Bryant was able to emerge from O'Neal's enormous shadow and get a title on "his" team. As he forced his teammates to be better, and willed the team through the playoffs when needed, the whispered comparisons to Jordan returned.
Have I not mentioned that the coach of Jordan's six championships and all four of Bryant's has been the same man? Phil Jackson's been there for all of it.
Jackson, who now hangs out on history book pages with Red Auerbach alone as a championship coach, is well aware of history and the place of individuals within that great context.
Which makes me wonder if it was within that mindset that Jackson had interest in adding the volatile Ron Artest to the mix in L.A. this year. Could Jackson now be crafting Bryant's "MJ Legacy" by adding "the new Dennis Rodman?"
Adding Artest—a defensive workhorse with questionable sanity—to a team that's already good enough to win a championship behind Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom bears a striking resemblence to the Bulls adding Rodman to their team that already included Jordan, Pippen and Tony Kukoc.
The coming season will be telling as much for the Lakers as it will be for basketball historians watching Bryant's emergence into a championship leader.
If Bryant can handle the reigns of Artest as Jordan did with Rodman, these Lakers could be the second coming of the three-peat teams in Chicago that included a team that won a record 72 regular-season games. If he can't, this noble experiment could be a detriment to Bryant's track record.
So let the discussion continue. Is Bryant "the next Jordan?" The similarities are now beginning to run too strong to ignore.