When men and women possessing immense basketball knowledge once assembled in places that invited great debate – places, for example, where liquid spirits flowed freely — the popular question was: Who will be the next Michael Jordan?
That topic first presented itself sometime in the ‘90s when players such as Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway and Vince Carter arrived in the NBA. So desperate and fruitless was the search that it briefly included a player known as “Baby Jordan,” which seems pretty comical today since Harold Miner managed to score 1,801 points in his four-year career. That would be a good 50-game stretch for Michael.
It is a compliment of the highest order to Kobe Bryant that after a few years in the NBA, the discussion was no longer who would be the next MJ, it was whether or not Kobe was better than Jordan.
If you think about it, Bryant actually answered the question with his play. He was, in fact, the next Michael Jordan. And that advanced the debate to the next level, which was: Was Kobe better than Michael?
Kobe says the answer is no, which is good enough for me.
LeBron James showed up at a time when Bryant was unquestionably the best player in the game. But with a refined skill set, a huge body, uncommon quickness and speed for a man his size, the countdown began: When would LeBron pass Kobe as the best?
Jerry West said it happened in 2009 – amazingly, almost four years ago. While no one outside of James Naismith and John Wooden has more basketball credibility than West, the Kobe boosters among us respectfully differed. I got to a point where I wrote an annual column making the case that the torch had not been passed.
When Jordan was asked to join the fray in the week preceding his 50th birthday, a big deal was made out of what he said. But the words in print came across far stronger than they did when you heard them on NBA-TV.
Jordan did in fact say that five rings for Kobe beats one for LeBron, but by the time he said that, he’d already said that James was the most dominant player in the NBA today. What was he supposed to say? LeBron’s one ring was more impressive than Kobe’s five?
Rather than making so much out of the ring count, the major point should have been that Jordan was officially joining the LeBron camp by saying he was the dominant player in basketball. He did not in any way minimize Kobe. In fact, he paid Bryant another huge compliment – saying Bryant is “cursed as much as I am.”
By that, Jordan meant Kobe has a savage, almost unhealthy need to win.
“He wants it so bad and he’s willing to go to the extreme – guarding the point guards at the age of 34, playing 38 minutes, 40 minutes,” Jordan said. “That’s ludicrous.”
While everyone rushed to James at All-Star events to get his take on what Jordan said, it was the way Kobe reacted to the comment that was fascinating.
Don’t think for a second that those two Bryant blocks on James near the end of the All-Star game weren’t a result of Jordan’s comments and Kobe’s need to assert himself. Maybe deep down, Kobe knows the younger LeBron is more dominant now.
But Bryant was like 45-year-old George Foreman in 1994, knocking out 26-year-old Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight title. Bryant still packed a defensive punch and one-on-one, he wanted to show he could still not only hold his own with LeBron, but also beat him.
It’s difficult to argue that the torch hasn’t passed from Bryant to James, who is six years younger, but if it has, it’s a recent phenomenon. And I’m still pretty certain that with the game on the line, I’d rather the ball in Kobe’s hands than LeBron’s.
On a higher level, I also believe that talk of LeBron being better than Jordan is incorrect … but I will say the same thing about James that I have said in the past about Bryant.
Both of them are in Jordan’s neighborhood. They don’t have the biggest houses or the nicest properties, but they do live in the area.
I do feel confident that in the near and distant future, however, greatness will still be defined by relating it to Jordan. We will not say that the greatest singer of the era is the LeBron James of music. We will not say the greatest actor is the Kobe Bryant of film.
We will continue to describe superiority by saying such people are the Michael Jordan of (whatever).
So my official assessment is this:
Kobe Bryant was the Michael Jordan of the NBA’s first decade of this century.
LeBron James is currently the Michael Jordan of basketball on this planet.
And the search for the next Michael Jordan will continue because another one has yet to be found.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub. For Hubbard’s archive from SheridanHoops.com, click here.