I wrote a Kobe Bryant/Michael Jordan feature for Lindy’s Pro Basketball 2008 Preview, the magazine that I have edited for the past 15 years. I sat down with Jordan for about 20 minutes over the offseason, which is the basis for the article, titled “In Michael’s Image.” I asked Jordan about Kobe Bryant and the loud criticism directed at the Lakers star for being a Jordan wanna be, an imitator.
Jordan and Bryant are close, which perhaps explains why Jordan said he doesn't see what all the big fuss is about. After all, human behavior is mimetic. That's what humans do. They copy and ape another.
Jordan acknowledged Bryant is the best of a generation of players who have tried to be like Mike.
"But how many people lighted the path for me?” Jordan asked. “That's the evolution of basketball. There's no way I could have played the way I played if I didn't watch David Thompson and guys prior to me. There's no way Kobe could have played the way he's played without watching me play. So, you know, that's the evolution of basketball. You cannot change that."
Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, who coached Jordan in Chicago and Bryant in Los Angeles, have long marveled at the alpha male nature of both players. What critics perhaps still don’t yet grasp is that the issue involves personality types.
It’s impossible to copy a personality type. That’s a genetic trait. Copying Jordan’s physical abilities would be nearly impossible to do. Then, to duplicate his uber mind-set? Such a constitution is rare indeed.
“I tend to think how very much they're alike,” Winter explained to me. “They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don't know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best."
Forget about jumping as high or shooting as well, who could work as hard as Jordan? Who’s willing to live a life of day-to-day, unbending grind? Who has the fierceness? The relentless desire that wears everyone else on the team out?
Jackson always pointed out that Jordan’s personality was great for winning games, but it tended to grind on the teammates around him.
Jordan sees these traits in Bryant and admits to being more than a casual observer. He’s fascinated by Bryant’s career, even able to relive some of his own experience by watching Kobe. After all, he too played for Jackson in Winter’s same triangle offense.
Perhaps nothing emphasizes the alpha male traits they share better than their similar reaction to injury.
Bryant, of course, was diagnosed with a torn ligament and an avulsion fracture last season. That means that the ligament pulled away from the digit and took a chunk of bone with it.
The injury isn’t so much continually painful as it is a source of numbness, unless someone strikes it during a game. Then it can become quite painful. It immediately raised questions about how the injury would affect Bryant’s shooting, a question that gets bandied about on the Internet.
Bryant could have had surgery during the season, but he wanted to keep playing.
He could have had it over the summer, but he wanted to play in the Olympics.
He could have it late in the offseason, but he has a serious agenda for the Lakers for 2009. That agenda doesn’t allow him to miss the early months of the season.
So he’s going to play on.
"I have always felt that I can still focus and play at a high level even through various injuries,” Bryant explained on his website. “That's really just part of the game. When the doctors told me recovery from a procedure could be 12 weeks, I just decided now was not the time to have surgery. What it really came down to for me is that I just didn't want to miss any time 'punching the clock' for the Lakers, given all we are trying to accomplish as a team this NBA season. I am just really excited and looking forward to being there with the guys when camp opens in a few weeks. That is a real bonding process and if I can avoid being on the sidelines for that, God willing, I will."
Old-timers will recall that just three games into his second NBA season, Jordan suffered a broken navicular tarsal bone in his left foot, an injury that had altered or ended the careers of several NBA players. He missed the next 64 games, then insisted on coming back to play at the end of the season, even though doctors explained that he risked perhaps a 15 percent chance of ending his career.
Jordan didn’t care. He was determined to play.
“That's the way Mike was,” Mark Pfeil, who was then the Bulls’ trainer, told me. “If he didn't think something was gonna hurt him, he'd focus past it and play. Sprains, groin pulls, muscle spasms, flu, Michael's first question always was, ‘Is it gonna hurt me to play?’ If I told him no, it was gone. He'd focus past it.”
“I didn't want to watch my team go down the pits,” Jordan explained. “I thought I was healthy enough to contribute something.”
With Jordan back in the lineup, the Bulls went 6-7 over their last 13 games and despite a 30-52 finish somehow made the playoffs. In the first round of the playoffs, the Bulls encountered the Boston Celtics, who were on their way to their 16th world championship. Boston swept Chicago, but not before Jordan set the NBA abuzz with a 63-point performance in a double-overtime loss on in Boston Garden.
"That's God disguised as Michael Jordan," Larry Bird said afterward.
Critics want to make much of Bryant’s decision as some sort of PR move, or perhaps yet another attempt to mimic Jordan.
Actually, it’s pretty simple. Bryant and his Lakers got their butts kicked by Boston in the league championship series. Bryant and his team lost Game 4 after holding a huge lead.
Winter, a longtime Bryant mentor and observer, noted that he outcome was a huge setback for someone with the stated goal of becoming the game’s greatest player.
For Bryant, the agenda is to get into training camp with his team to get ready to compete in 2009. He wants to win, and he can’t do that sitting out in September, October and November. He’s got a young team that he needs to lead, to drive.
After all, that’s what alpha males do.