June 19, 2010

Almost Michael... But Not Quite

I remember, back in 6th Grade, my English teacher Mrs. Bona forced a great many, supposedly simple pieces of poetry on the class. I've never been a huge fan of poetry, but one particular poem by Shel Silverstein always stuck in my head, as much for its content as for its rhythm.

The poem was called "Almost Perfect... But Not Quite", about a girl called Mary Hume who goes through life finding little problems with everything that came her way. From the tablecloth at her seventh birthday party, to her boyfriend, to even heaven... Everything for Mary was Almost perfect... but not quite.

And if there is one player in the basketball world who wouldn't even be satisfied with anything but perfection is Number 24 of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant. Perfection in basketball is symbolised by Michael Jordan, and as much as Kobe continues to succeed, he will have to be content with being almost Michael... but not quite.

The world watched as Kobe Bryant captured his fifth NBA title yesterday. We watched as he won his second successive Finals MVP award. We watched as, for the second year in a row, the NBA champions were his team, not Shaq's, who led the Lakers and Kobe in the first three title as the beginning of the last decade.

If there was any question about Kobe's legacy as a top-10 player of all time, they should all be buried six feet underground now. Kobe is the greatest player of the modern era. Forget that LeBron James has been overshadowing him in the MVP battle, the real reason for Kobe's NBA existence is Championships, and he collects them like few others. These were his seventh NBA Finals, including his third straight. No matter what happens in the regular season, it is (almost) always certain that Kobe Bryant will be in the spotlight when it matters the most.

But despite his successes, his brilliance, his ability to always find a way to win, Kobe Bryant will never be the player he wants to be, or rather, the player he wants to be better than... Michael Jordan.

You must have heard the comparisons all before. The wagging tongue, the sweet mid-range jumper, the height, the position, the scoring spurts, the clutch shots, the fourth-quarter takeovers, the mean streak, the cold-bloodedness, the anger with which he motivates his teammates, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat... Kobe has so many things common with Michael that it's eerie. The world still remembers Jordan as the one player that rose above the NBA, above basketball. Jordan was transcendent, he was so damn good that he became bigger than the game itself. He was, and remains, the Greatest of All Time.

And then there's Kobe, the hungriest player in the league today, the one player who really as a shot at being the Greatest, both in terms of talent and success. He is the only today who can seriously start thinking about being the same heavenly company as Jordan. And his own personal strive, his ego, his ambition is so lofty that he won't rest until he becomes better. Until he becomes the best ever.

The only problem is that he won't.

Kobe will always be almost Michael... but not quite. On the basketball court, Jordan could never take a bad step, never a wrong decision, or at least that is what the legends will have us believe. Kobe on the other hand seems to be incomplete version of the Jordan legend, a slightly faulty piece of the perfect which works (almost) as well as the original. The Lakers are again favourites to win the championship next season, and Kobe may soon be the proud owner of as many rings as Jordan, but that won't make them equal... far from it.

Jordan was the undisputed MVP for his 6 championships - Kobe was Shaq's sidekick for the first three, and in the most recent one, no intelligent basketball mind would've been surprised if the Finals MVP had been handed to Pau Gasol instead of Kobe. As a matter of fact, Kobe had one of the least overwhelming Finals MVP performances of all time in this series. This is not to take away from his brilliance - it is to say that there is no chance that Michael would've struggled like Kobe did in the Finals.

With his fifth ring, Kobe has surpassed the two other biggest winners active in the NBA today: Shaq and Tim Duncan. He even dropped a jewel of a quote reminding us about it after Game 7: "I just got one more than Shaq!" Bryant said happily. "You can take that to the bank … You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything."

Indeed, you did overshadow Shaq, Kobe. And what more, the player known as Black Mamba was his cold-bloodedness in clutch still has three or four years left of all star level basketball. With the brilliant supporting cast of teammates working with him, Kobe could easily bag up a few more championship rings. He will be remembered for being the most historic player of this era, with his championship rings, his winning mentality, those scoring spurts (he once had nine games straight with over 40 points, and once had five with over 50), and that 62 points in three quarters game against the Mavericks, and those 61 he dropped at the Madison Square Garden, and his Finals MVPs, and All-Star MVPs, and Olympic Final Takeovers, and countless game winners and clutch performances, and even that Slam Dunk Championship, and how he almost became the best player of all time.

Oh ya, and he once scored 81 points in a basketball game. See it to believe it:

But he will never be Jordan. By the time he retires, Kobe's legacy will lie competing to become, or maybe even becoming, the greatest Laker of all time, challenging the likes of Jerry West, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, and Magic Johnson.

Being the second-best shooting guard of all time? If Kobe could live with it, then that would be a spectacular distinction for his career. Only that he won't. As I said, Kobe is too much like Mary Hume, and until he overtakes Jordan, his career will remain almost perfect... but not quite.


  1. MJ is the undisputed no 1, but he had some crappy times too. I came across this:

    1996 Finals. Game 6, Bulls vs Sonics.

    Jordan - 22 points (5/19), 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 turnovers

    2010 Finals. Game 7, Lakers vs. Celtics

    Bryant - 23 points (6/24), 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 turnovers

    then for the series:

    1996 Finals : Michael jordan (33 years old)

    .415 fg %, 27.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 assists

    2010 Finals : Kobe bryant (32 years old)

    0.405 fg %, 28.6 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.9 assists

    Maybe one thing that works in MJ's favor is that he came first, and made his mark real high for everyone to shoot at in vain for all time. People who came up watching him are now judging Kobe, perhaps with a bias.

    A decade from now, the numbers may work in favor of Kobe, higher scoring outbursts, more rings(maybe.) The next generation will be a better judge of who was better among the two.

  2. @Sid: you make a fair point about MJ having some crappy times, but my intention for this article was to show that however amazing Kobe is today, he is still not in the same league. You may count the number of rings as 6 to 5, but MJ was never 2nd best as champion - Kobe was the undisputed leader in the team for only the Magic championship, because even this year's win over the Celtics was a much more shared effort, especially from Gasol.