By Mike Wise
Monday, May 31, 2010; D01
If we're going to have the conversation, we might as well go to one of the primary sources, no?
Greatest of all time, you or Michael?
"That's hard for me," Kobe Bryant said, walking to another team bus after another virtuoso performance in late May. "I'm still young. Our careers are so different."
But what if you win a championship this season and one or two more rings before you retire? That would equal or surpass Michael Jordan's haul of titles. Don't we have to start talking about it?
"You can, but I don't know if it's fair to anyone," Kobe said. "I mean, I came off the bench early in my career. We had such different beginnings, you know? And then I played with a much different team about halfway through my career. You almost have to judge my career in two phases."
There was Kobe With Shaq and Kobe Without Shaq; Michael always had Scottie Pippen.
Kobe came straight from high school; Michael stayed three years at North Carolina. Kobe is working on his fifth title at 31 years old; Michael didn't win his fifth until he was 34 years old.
Yet for the bulk of their careers, they both also had Phil Jackson, the greatest coach in the game.
"He's comparable [to Jordan]," Jackson said of Bryant on Saturday night in the desert outside the coach's room at U.S. Airways Arena. "He's got the same drive and determination."
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.
"There's still something about him. So many people question how genuine Kobe is. He's chosen to not let people really get to know him."
Because we sadly convince ourselves that what we see on television equals who someone is, Kobe won't even go down as the greatest Laker in history. Magic Johnson wrapped that up for eternity a long time ago.
Purely based on his professional persona, I think Kobe gets shortchanged on the image issue. See, Michael was as cutthroat and undiplomatic and nasty as a champion ever was. By the time he put on the suit and tie, though, he was a much better actor. With his megawatt smile and disarming wink, he could conceal the shadow side of him in ways Kobe never really cared if he concealed.
When I ran that thought by Kobe late Saturday night in Phoenix, he didn't completely agree. "He wasn't better at hiding it," Kobe said of Michael. "I think there was just less media coverage."
Either way, it's time to stop ignoring the possibility there will ever be a player of Jordan's ilk -- and maybe better.
"Yeah, you can compare them," said Brian Shaw, the Lakers assistant coach who played with Kobe and against both players. "They're made of the same stuff. The difference: I think Michael had just bigger hands. He could palm the ball off the dribble. I don't think Kobe can do that."
I sought out Steve Kerr for the final say. He played with Michael and against Kobe. Kerr intimately felt the moments when Michael siphoned the soul from a team's season, no more than the night he shot down Utah on the road in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Flash forward to another Game 6, Western Conference finals, 12 years later. Thirty-five seconds left, game in the balance. The best player on the court squares and fires off-balance from the right wing with hands in his face. Good. Another visiting arena is crestfallen, its team's season over. Kerr, now the Phoenix Suns general manager, intimately felt that shot puncture more than a great year.
"He's the only guy you can legitimately say is right there with Michael," Kerr said. "Kobe actually has better shooting range than Michael. Now, Michael was more physical. The rules when he played allowed the Knicks to maul him. But in the end, they're both killers and the most incredible players of their eras."
It's easy to appreciate both for their talents and their triumphs this time of year.
It's harder to acknowledge the truth and just say it: If Kobe Bryant wins his fifth title in the next two weeks and wins two more championships before he retires to give him seven rings, he has to be given the nod as the greatest individual talent ever to play in the NBA.
As hard as that might be to hear for Michael and his legions, that's not heresy anymore.