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Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan argument is no longer heresy

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Jackson had just watched the game's most accomplished player pour in 37 points and two of the most jaw-dropping shots in the final two minutes of a close-out victory over the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals, shots that pushed the Lakers into their third straight NBA Finals and seventh in the last 11 seasons.

So, he was essentially asked, what if Michael's surreal highlights start to be referred to as "Kobe-esque?" Or is that just heresy? Should we play the "Greatest of All Time" game?

"People are going to do it," Jackson replied.

What about you?

"I will hold back observation until that time."

Okay, that's a maybe. And raise your hand right now if you thought Phil would ever go there on any level?

We can play "Who Had More 40- and 50-point games?" and "Who Holds More NBA records?" and break down raw numbers forever. And it won't do anything but satisfy the people who calibrate the game instead of celebrate it.

But the entire debate is really immaterial in some ways, isn't it? Because in the G.O.A.T. argument, the problem for Bryant isn't about production -- it's about perception.

The unfortunate truth for Kobe is he can never be Michael because he isn't thought of as likable as Jordan, also the greatest commercial pitchman ever for an athlete. Even if he tied or surpassed Jordan in championships and postseason magical moments, Bryant's public missteps -- the prideful ego war with Shaquille O'Neal early in his career, the sexual assault charge eventually dropped in Colorado and his desire to leave the Lakers only a few years ago -- will always be held against him.

"Let's say he does get two more rings," Tim Legler, the former player and now an ESPN analyst, said recently in a telephone interview. "Even if he doesn't win any more MVP awards, he will probably approach Kareem Abdul-

Jabbar's all-time scoring record. You absolutely can make a valid argument for Kobe being the greatest ever when that happens.

"But he will never be revered like Michael Jordan will be revered," Legler added. "He's never been beloved like Michael has been beloved. Very little of that has to do with what happened in Vail [Colo.] or anything with Shaq.


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