Michael Jordan remains the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of high tops. Don't believe me? How about this quote from Larry Bird after Jordan dropped 63 points on the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs:
"That was God disguised as Michael Jordan."
Larry Bird was one of the top 10 players in the history of the game. Call me up when one today's Hall of Fame players calls LeBron James or Kobe Bryant "God," because it ain't happening.
For all you young kids out there, Jordan was that good.
I remember watching "Come Fly With Me" when I was a little boy. I would watch that wonderful piece of propaganda, and then I would go outside to play basketball in my driveway. It didn't matter if it was raining, if it was hot, if it was cold, or if the wind was blowing.
Like everybody else, I wanted to be like Mike.
Jordan was so great that people actually started searching for his replacement before he retired. Think about that for just a minute. Jordan hadn't even unlaced his sneakers yet, and they were already calling him the greatest ever.
The first guy I remember being called "The Next Jordan" was Penny Hardaway, the number three overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft. During his rookie season, he started out as the shooting guard, but eventually moved to the starting point guard role. During his rookie season, the Magic won 50 games. The following year, the Magic advanced to the NBA Finals, with Hardaway averaging 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals.
Let's not give Hardaway all the credit. The Magic also had a pretty decent center by the name of Shaquille O'Neal on that team.
Looking back on it, it seems foolish to compare Hardaway to Jordan. No disrespect to Penny, who was a very good NBA player, but comparing him to the greatest player of all time? How could people jump to that conclusion?
It's not as crazy as it sounds. There are two clues that make sense when you really stop to think about it.
First of all, Hardaway's rookie season, 1993-94, also happened to be Jordan's first "retirement" from basketball. So with Jordan gone, people were obviously searching for his "Air Apparent."
Second, Hardaway kind of looked like Jordan. He was a big guard (6'7), and so was Jordan (6'6). He was a long, athletic wing player with a well rounded game, just like Jordan.
In our search for "The Next Jordan," we ended up looking for a lot of guys that looked like Mike.
There was Harold Minor, a 6'5 guard out of USC. Minor actually came to the league before Jordan retired in 1993, and was called "Baby Jordan" for his jaw dropping athleticism. Minor played four seasons in the NBA and was a decent role player.
Of course, Grant Hill carried the "Next Jordan" torch for a while. At 6'8, Hill had a little more small forward in him than shooting guard. Hill was a great athlete during his early days with the Detroit Pistons and was on his way to a tremendous career before injuries robbed him of a couple of seasons worth of games.
As good as Grant Hill was, he was "out of sight, out of mind."
Then along came Vince Carter. Carter, standing 6'6, was the same size and build as Jordan. He also attended the University of North Carolina, Jordan's alma mater. Carter was also one of the best dunkers of all time. His rookie season was 1998-99, the year after Jordan "retired" for a second time. Once again, we were searching for "The Next Jordan."
Carter looked like he could take that title and run with it.
During the 2000-2001 season, Carter's third in the league, he put up really good numbers. He averaged 27.6 points, 3.9 assists, and 5.5 rebounds to go along with 1.5 steals per game. He also won the Dunk Contest in 2000 with an amazing, 360-hang-on-the-rim-with-your-elbow dunk that had never been seen. Everything pointed towards Carter being "The Guy."
A deeper look revealed otherwise.
Carter only shot 46 percent from the field. He was getting his points because he was jacking it up there over 22 times per game. Carter was also a below average defensive player. Then he got hammered in the press for attending his college graduation ceremony on the day of a playoff game. As time went on, he forced his way out of Toronto via trade instead of working harder to make his team better.
To sum it up, Carter was all style but no substance.
So we started looking again, and we found a skinny teenager who looked like Jordan. He was 6'6, freakishly athletic, and he played hard. He had an ego, saying he wanted to be the best. He even had Jordan's former coach, Phil Jackson, to teach him the intricacies of the Triangle Offense, the same offense Jordan played in as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
Of course, I'm talking about Kobe Bryant.
I've said it to anybody who will listen; Kobe Bryant is the best player I've seen since Michael Jordan. He has a terrific all around game on the offensive end. He can score from any area of the floor. He gets to the free throw line. He isn't the finisher that Jordan was, and the stats back that up. I could go into a lot of detail, but that's another topic altogether.
My point is, Kobe is one of the best scorers the NBA has ever seen.
On defense, he competes hard. He takes the challenge of shutting down a good player on the opposing team. He has done this throughout his career. He rebounds, he isn't afraid to hit the floor, and he will play through injuries. His work ethic is legendary. He has the jewelry to enter into any Jordan argument and hold his own.
Having said all that, Kobe comes up just a bit short when being compared to Jordan.
First of all, his playoff and Finals stats are nowhere near Jordan's. Of course, you could also say that about almost every other player to ever play in the NBA, but it's a fact you have to weigh heavily when comparing the two players.
Kobe's performance in the postseason has been really good. Jordan's was truly great.
So after all these years, we are still looking for "The Next Jordan." Will we ever see another player that great? Maybe not, but the first thing we have to understand is, when looking for "The Next Jordan," we have to stop looking for guys that look like Jordan.
Instead, we have to look at what made Jordan tick. What made him burn to be great?
We all know the story of how he was cut from his high school basketball team, and how he couldn't beat his older brother Larry in the backyard one-one games they would play. We all heard the Hall of Fame speech, where Jordan recalled how he remembered even the slightest challenges to his greatness.
Michael Jordan was the kind of guy that got out of bed every morning looking for a challenge. He looked for hurdles to jump over. He searched for mountains to climb. If there were no worthy opponents, he just invented insults, so he could say he had to prove himself all over again.
My favorite Michael Jordan quote sums the man up perfectly. When asked why he played so hard every night, Jordan said: "There might be one person in that crowd who has never seen me play before, and they will probably never see me play again." Jordan wanted everybody who saw him play to experience that "Michael Jordan moment."
So is there a player out there like that today? In today's world of AAU basketball, free shoes, cross country trips, and kids having their asses' kissed from the time they were 12 years old, finding that guy is going to be hard. Can you imagine a player with Jordan's talent being cut? Can you imagine a player that good going to school for three years to learn from a great coach like Dean Smith in today's world of "one-and-done" college basketball?
Again, stop looking for lightning to strike twice.
In my opinion, "The Next Jordan" is walking among us right now. We don't recognize him because he is a little taller, and a little skinnier. We can't see him, because he is a product of the AAU culture, a "one-and-done" guy himself.
That doesn't change the fact that Kevin Durant might be "Next."
Jordan had a "love of the game" clause in his contract, permitting him to play pickup basketball whenever he wanted to. Durant, like Jordan, loves the game. He will play anytime, anyplace, and against anybody. We have seen him this summer playing pickup basketball all across the country.
And just like Jordan, Durrant wants to give people their money's worth. He has scored 44, 59, and 66 points during three exhibition games this summer. More than putting points up faster than a pinball machine, it's how he scores those points. During his Rucker Park shooting spree, each three he took was a little deeper.
As Eminem said, Durant has the ability to "lose himself in the moment," to "own it..."
When the bright lights come on, Durant is just as good. He dominated the FIBA World Championship, leading a young Team USA to the Gold Medal. He has led the league in scoring the last two seasons, the youngest player to ever win a scoring title. Durant is only 23 years old. He is a lanky 6'9, with ridiculous length and athleticism. He is a hard worker and a great teammate.
Is Kevin Durant "The Next Jordan?"
Chances are we'll never see another Jordan. But if we do, and I had to bet on one player to be that guy, then I'd lay lay my money down on Kevin Durant being that guy. Durant isn't even close to his ceiling yet. With his work ethic and terrific attitude, I think he at least has a chance.
Or at least a better chance than Harold Minor! Hindsight is 20/20, right?