Friday, May 11, 2012

Kobe vs. Jordan - a tale of two flu games

Kobe Bryant has played a careerlong game of one-upmanship with the NBA's greatest. This is most pronounced with Michael Jordan, the player with whom he is most often compared. It's no secret that Kobe wants to be the greatest ever and that he's almost painfully aware that to be so considered, he has to surmount Jordan in achievement and legacy.

There is no end of comparison. Their careers cross over on many levels, from skills, to gifts, desire and even career achievement. Despite his stated protests, by so patently aiming to dethrone the NBA's all-time greatest, Kobe actively invites the Jordan comparison. And he can't ever hope to win. This futile struggle, perhaps more than any other, is the core of his narrative. He will never be as universally respected and admired as Jordan; his presence in the internet era (where naysayers proliferate) and the simple fact that he is so often compared to his motivation underlines that.

Bryant is certainly admirable: his desire to be the best and to work hard to achieve is laudable; his blatant pursuit of the title “Greatest Ever” even lays bare an honesty not normally associated with pro ballers, least of all the enigmatic Bryant and calculating Jordan. However, that honesty works against him: Jordan never felt the need to publicly state his ambition/case for being the best baller ever; it was unstated and dignified.

It is telling that Kobe has felt – and at times appears to service – that need.

That he so wants to be the best - and in his own way - doesn't diminish his wonderful achievements.  He's an All-timer, and if you want to plug his case for Top 8 ever, I'll listen – but because his story feels more manufactured, a book written to an award-winning formula, his legacy will  never overshadow Jordan's.  He can't escape the MJ comparison because the judging public feel like it's all been done before.

Sometimes it appears that Kobe feels he surpasses other players by checking items off a list: “Scoring titles – check. All NBAs – check. Game winners – check”. Here, we open up Amateur psychology hour: it seems Kobe achieves a measure of personal validation by amassing evidence to support his case as the Greatest. It could even be that's not the case – maybe by collecting accoutrements, he seeks only to personally define himself outside a bald shadow.

With Jordan, his case was supported not by the evidence he collected, but the bodies he left behind.

Last night, Kobe (and/or his career arbiters) had a chance to check one more item from the Jordan list: a playoff game he played while sick with the flu. While Kobe had often performed under duress before (perhaps most notably in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals) the fact his symptoms mirrored Jordan's made for luscious media fodder. Broadcaster TNT couldn't resist, showing a number moments from Jordan's flu game. The juxtaposition wasn't subtle, nor was it flattering – and it didn't matter how well Bryant played.

The “Flu game” is one of Michael Jordan's legacy games, one of the pointers indicating his status as the greatest competitor modern hoops has seen. For a personal perspective, it is the basketball game I've enjoyed and re-watched more than any other. Jordan, at the end of his peak, scored 38 points and the sealing basket to defeat an excellent Jazz team in the 1997 NBA Finals.

It fits the Kobe story perfectly that his flu game became overblown and then something twigged meaning his team failed to deliver. Because of the innate, occasionally-Kobe-invited comparison, sections of the media saw Bryant's condition as an opportunity to hype the encounter to boost ratings/hits/RTs – no NBA player since Chamberlain has been so divisive. Given Kobe's residence in the internet age, his bus journey and medical status was updated regularly pre-tip, practically begging everyone to hark back to '97.

The thing is, though, that in Jordan's flu game the audience found out Jordan was unwell five minutes before the game. It was so hushed that Jim Gray reported half way through the first quarter that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan “didn't know he was [sick] – and didn't want to know”. The result was that Kobe's flu game felt more artificial, somehow manufactured, and therefore less powerful than Jordan's. This time, the orchestration didn't come from Bryant himself, but a circumstance that would have been better for Bryant had it not occurred.  The interweb saw the situation as a point where comparison between the two became not only tantalising, but requisite.

It fits Kobe's narrative that “his” flu game isn't nearly as memorable: the Nugs defeated the Lakers with ease despite a great game from Bryant.

It was the organic nature of Jordan's moments that sets them apart from Bryant. In this case, his flu game was in the NBA Finals, against an excellent opponent featuring the league's MVP (despite it being Karl Malone's “career achievement” award that year). Kobe's illness moment was in Round 1 against a middling playoff team, in an age where the Internet and Twitter play a crucial role in creating narratives – often, creating stories that aren't really there. That the game took place in Colorado, scene of Bryant's greatest mis-step, is also telling.

The same verisimilitude shrouds his high-scoring game of 81 against the Raptors. Jordan's high-game – 69 against the Cavs (who else?) – glitters more brightly: it was against a division rival and has been treated well by history. Kobe's high-game felt manufactured, plastic – a product of orchestration rather than an act of artistry. That he tried to coin another nickname “81” after to highlight his deed rubbed many against the grain.

Could Kobe's career be treated with the same veneration when he retires? Unfortunately, it may take some time. The player who similarly liked to point to achievement, Chamberlain, passed away before a majority accepted him for what he was, rather than was not.

It is Kobe Bryant's destiny to be compared to Michael Jordan, and to fail in those assessment. His size, position, athleticism, scoring ability and desire have seen to that. (Not to mention incidents like him waving off Karl Malone in his first All-Star game to go one-on-one with Jordan). In close examination, and almost because rather than in spite of reams of evidence, no-one compares with Jordan because his narrative (with the Bulls, at any rate) is so perfectly complete.

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