Kobe Bryant has it.
Other current NBA players may have a dose of it, but it is negligible when compared to Bryant, who has spent much of his career – particular the late ’90s and early 2000’s – being compared to the fanatically driven Michael Jordan.
To his credit, Bryant always dismissed that silliness even though there is little doubt that he has earned the distinction of at least being in Mr. Jordan’s neighborhood.
It is cheap to say there will never be anyone better than a former or current player, because who knows? Maybe one day there will be another Clark Kent.
But we can assess the past and present, and these truths seem self-evident: There has never been a basketball player better than Michael Jordan, just as there has never been a boxer better than Muhammad Ali, a phenomenon greater than Elvis, a football player better than Jim Brown, a group better than the Beatles, a television show better than The Wire, a baseball player more legendary than Babe Ruth, a hot dog better than one made by a New York street vendor, a performer more electrifying than Michael Jackson, or a fast food better than a hamburger.
And there is no one in the NBA at this time who is better than Kobe Bryant, even though in the last few years it has become popular to rank others ahead of him. Even Laker legend Jerry West said two years ago that LeBron James had passed Kobe.
With all due respect sir — hardly. Bryant may not be Jordan, in terms of competitiveness , he is very close to Jordan’s equal and certainly is in the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird range. Besides greatness, each of those gentlemen were ferocious competitors.
Bryant has once again demonstrated his greatness in the last week with four consecutive games of 40 or more points. Those performances have not been because he wants to add to his career point totals – even though he does. They have been part of carrying a Lakers’ team that management made weaker in the off-season.
In trading Lamar Odom for whatever nothing they got, the Lakers made Bryant’s quest for a sixth ring infinitely more difficult. But that’s OK. Bryant’s ready to compete.
So he also has a ligament tear in his right (shooting) wrist that requires regular cortisone shots? No problem. He takes them, has a numbed shooting hand, and goes out and . . . scores 40.
But besides Bryant’s dedication and natural urge to compete, there is another trait that still makes him a mini-Jordan/Johnson/Bird – his response to slights, insults and criticism. And they can be real or imagined.
A web site recently did one of those lists that are goofy and pointless and designed only to bring attention to the site, which is the media world we currently live in. On the list, Bryant was ranked the seventh best player in the NBA. Bryant saw it. And then he went on his 40-point binge and said, “Not bad for the seventh best player in the NBA.”
There are many stories involving Jordan’s legendary competitiveness, but one of my favorites involves Magic. Along about 1990, a large group of writers and NBA public relations directors had a fantasy basketball draft. A few days later, my friend David Moore of the Dallas Morning News had an assignment in Los Angeles and in a rare moment when he was alone with Magic, he broke the good news of his draft.
“I got you on my fantasy team this year,” Moore said.
“Oh yeah,” Magic said, before asking the question that every great player asked about every fantasy draft. “Where’d I go?”
“Sixth,” Moore said.
“Sixth!” Johnson yelped, and it would take several more exclamation points to reflect the shock in his voice.
Moore went on to explain that centers are difficult to get, so Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson all went before Johnson. Magic seemed slightly appeased, then looked at Moore very seriously and said, “Who else we got?”
Already, it had become his team.
Moore named several of his subsequent draft picks and after each one, Magic nodded and said, “Good . . . good . . . good.” When Moore finished, Magic nodded one last time and then – and I’m serious about this – gave Moore a high five.
And that was about fantasy basketball.
That happened during preseason, and we did not pay attention to results the next few games. But I’m betting that if it had occurred on the day of a game, Magic would have gone out and put up a triple-double that night to prove that he was indeed better than the sixth-best player in a fantasy draft.
Now, I would be reluctant to break this news to Kobe in person, but with 1,300 miles between us, it seems safe.
In our fantasy draft his year, Kobe went 20th.
(Numerous Kobe expletives deleted.)
There are reasons, of course – that wrist, that index finger that was so bad a couple of years ago, those 16 years in the league, those 48,000-plus minutes played . . . all are proving to be very bad reasons.
The guy who grabbed Bryant with the 20th pick, by the way, also drafted Kevin Durant first and is killing the rest of the league. (Kobe, does that make you feel better?)
While fantasy basketball is insignificant in the big picture, such stories are simply part of demonstrating another level of competitiveness. It is another example of responding to slights, and the great ones like Kobe are far more offended by items such as lists and fantasy leagues than LeBron or any other current player.
So the list-makers can worship LeBron all they want, but I would say this: Who would you rather have in the fourth quarter? In Miami, James is only the second option for a last shot; Dwyane Wade is first. That’s according to teammate Chris Bosh, who recently was asked in a GQ article who takes the last shot in a Heat game and he quickly said: “Dwyane.”
Like Kobe has many ingredients that made Jordan The Greatest, LeBron, Wade and others have elements of what makes Kobe the best. But this issue is not about physique or youth, it is about who is the “Best Basketball Player in the World.”