Kobe Bryant joined the 30,000-point club Wednesday, and the praise was wide and deep. “He’s the youngest player to reach that milestone,” gushed ESPN — all of ESPN, not just one person.
Well, sure he is. He played his first NBA game at age 18 — although it is hard to believe Bryant is now 34. The other four in the elite group got comparatively late starts compared to Bryant: Wilt Chamberlin was 23, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were 22 and Michael Jordan was 21. Heck, Abdul-Jabbar was so young, his name was still Lew Alcindor.
Yes, Bryant was NBA-ready at an early age, and was lucky enough to be NBA-ready at a time when the NBA was ready to admit players who hadn’t attended at least one year of college. But still, let’s put the age thing in perspective.
Then Magic Johnson declared Bryant the greatest Laker of all time, and all heck broke loose in the World Wide Leader’s studios in Bristol, Conn., culminating in a near slap fight between Damien Woody and Tony Dungy that was apparently so noteworthy off-camera that the network decided to haul it on-camera.
(By the way, this is how “Pardon the Interruption” was born in the Post newsroom, with Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser yelling at each other in front of bemused journalists. They’ve since expanded their audience quite a bit.)
Some people other than Magic Johnson believe Magic Johnson is the greatest Laker of all time. Others vote for Bryant, or Jerry West, even. Still others could not care less.
These “greatest fill-in-the-blank” declarations are a staple of sports, and not just broadcasting, although ESPN has the dubious distinction of raising them to an art form. But it’s hard to compare players across generations, against different competitors, from smaller leagues to larger ones, from dimmer spotlights to brighter ones, and so on.
People usually consult statistics in these debates. Bryant and Johnson each won five championship rings with the Lakers. Bryant was an MVP in the Finals twice, Johnson three times. Johnson was a three-time league MVP; Bryant has won the award just once. Johnson scored only 17,707 points in his career; Bryant has more than 30,000 and isn’t done yet. The league was different in the Showtime era than it is today. And so on.
The Lakers of today depend on Bryant’s scoring ability far more than the Lakers of yore depended on Johnson’s, simply because Johnson was on a lot of teams with more offensive weapons than many of the teams Bryant has played for — including another 30,000 guy, Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson was able to integrate everyone into “Showtime”; faced with difficulty or blowback from his teammates, Bryant will just take most of the shots.
But when people decide their answer to the “greatest” questions, they usually wind up depending on their value system. Those who like scoring will choose Bryant. Those who are interested in team play will choose Johnson. Those who like the NBA logo may think West is the right choice.
That’s why, in most of these faux sports debates, you can have as many arguments as you have participants. What constitutes a great college coach? For me, the list is short: 1. Don’t embarrass the school. 2. Recruit and graduate good kids. 3. Beat Missouri. 4. National championships. (That last one has moved up a notch since the rivalry is no more.) For others, national championships trump all.
And that’s fine. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to any of these debates; they’re just so much noise. Which is why, when something as unimportant as the Bryant argument pops up, the mute button is sometimes the best answer.