23, Just One More, That Number Will Never Be 24

Notwithstanding Kobe Bryant wearing number 24 in high school, his choice to wear number 24 to start the 2006–2007 NBA season could well reflect a subconscious desire to be one more than the 23 worn by Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time. In 2002, at age 23, Bryant completed his first, and last, three-peat. At that point in his career trajectory, he was light years ahead of Jordan, who won his first title at the ripe old age of 28. By 31, just about the age Jordan completed his first three-peat, Kobe was crowned with his fifth championship ring. Though Bryant no longer maintained the same lead over Jordan that he did as a fresh-faced 23 year-old, it was still entirely possible for him to eclipse Jordan’s six Championship rings.

The Ebb and Flow of the Kobe-Jordan Horse Race

Using the sport of kings to describe two kings of sport, the remainder of this article will position Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in a head-to-head horse race. Taking things back to their respective times of entry into the NBA, Jordan would have been ahead of Kobe. In Jordan’s draft class two players were selected ahead of him. Most notably, Hakeem Olajuwon, the focal point and 2-time NBA Finals MVP of the mid-nineties back-to-back Houston Rockets NBA Championship teams, was the first player selected in Jordan’s 1984 draft class. This draft class included a stunning cast of now NBA Hall of famers, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Oscar Schmidt, and the aforementioned Olajuwon. On the other hand, twelve (12) players were selected ahead of the straight-out-of high school Bryant during his draft. Among the players selected ahead of Bryant most people will probably only remember Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby and Antoine Walker from that draft class. Whilst some of Kobe’s draft class may still be awaiting Hall of Fame eligibility, it may be safe to say only Ray Allen will be added to Allen Iverson who was named into the Hall earlier this year.

Jordan Extends his Lead: 1984–1987 Vs 1996–1999

Comparing the two players from rookie through junior year in the NBA, Jordan seems to increase his lead on Bryant. Jordan was a starter and finished his first season with Rookie of the Year honours and winning Olympic Gold. In Bryant’s first two seasons, he came off the bench behind relative unknowns Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. In Jordan’s second season, despite having to come back from a broken leg, he put up 63 points against Larry Bird and the Celtics to record a still standing record: highest points scored by a single player in a playoff game. In their third seasons, both Jordan and Bryant were pivotal pieces in their respective teams. Jordan, by that time though, was leading the league in both scoring average and scoring per cent. On top of that, Jordan cemented his place as a comprehensive player by achieving 100 blocks and 200 steals. Both players succumbed to playoff sweeps in their respective third NBA seasons. By this stage of Bryant’s career, comparisons with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson had emerged.

Kobe Hinges Ahead: 1987–1990 Vs 1999–2002

Over the next three seasons in Bryant’s career, he appeared poised to eclipse Jordan’s legend. Of course, this was the period 1999–2002, when Bryant landed his three-peat, together with Shaquille O’Neal and a strong supporting cast. At this point, championships — the single most important measure of greatness — were well in Bryant’s favour. Being only 23 at the time accentuated Bryant’s significant championship edge over Jordan, who won his first title at age 28. During this time Kobe showed signs that he rivalled Jordan in what was arguably Jordan’s greatest skill — the will to win. But surrounded by a strong supporting cast, featuring the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, there were questions of whether or not Kobe was the engine of his team’s success.

In terms of individual achievement and accolades, the equivalent three-year period in Jordan’s career was outstanding, as he was leading league scorer and defensive player of the year. However, at the level of team achievements those years were much kinder to Kobe. Reaching the playoffs for the Chicago Bulls in the late 1980’s was presumed, it was winning the title that mattered most. However, the Detroit Pistons — -the Bad Boys, as they were dubbed — — ensured that Jordan would not get his hand on the Eastern Conference Championship trophy, let alone the NBA title, between 1987 and 1990. During this period, Jordan’s supporting cast was an up-and-coming set of players including Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. The repute of this supporting squad was so low at the time that Detroit employed the so-called “Jordan Rules” — — double and triple teaming Jordan — — daring the other members of the Bulls to beat them.

Jordan, Back in the Hunt: 1990–1993 Vs 2002–2005

The third three year period in each of their careers would tilt the balance in Jordan’s favour. In 1992 Jordan won an Olympic Gold medal in Barcelona. In addition to the individual accolades already mentioned, Jordan’s first three-peat would catapult his reputation ahead of Kobe at the equivalent point in the Laker guard’s career. In fact, the years 2002–2005 saw Bryant’s title-winning team come apart. Most famously, they lost the 2004 NBA Championship to the Detroit Pistons in an upset; traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat; and did not renew Phil Jackson’s coaching contract at the end of the season. The following season saw the Lakers missing the playoffs and Kobe Bryant showing poorly in comparison to the last five years of his career. Phil Jackson, a nine-time NBA Championship coach at the time, wrote that Kobe was “uncoachable”. Interestingly enough, Jackson coached Jordan through all six championships and never made such unflattering comments. Jordan retired for the first time after the 1992–1993 season, and would not return until 1995.

“I’m Back”, Meant Back On Top: 1995–1998 Vs 2005–2008

Jordan’s return to the NBA in 1995 paved the way for him to once again surpass Bryant. The Chicago Bulls star posted his second three-peat from 1996 -1998, with his team winning an all-time record 72 games in a single season (currently challenged by the 2016 Golden State Warriors). During the corresponding period in Kobe’s career, he recovered from the decline of the 2004–2005 season by winning Olympic Gold; achieving NBA scoring titles; and nabbing MVP honours in 2008. Also, Bryant scored 81 points against the Pelicans and averaged more than 40 points per game in a single month. These were numbers second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 1960’s statistics. However, in 2008 Bryant would lose to the Boston Celtics in his only finals appearance during that period. Jordan would once again retire at the end of the 1998 Championship run.

The Mamba’s number change to 24 was flush in the middle of this period. Co-incidentally, this was a time when the world was mesmerised by the “Be Like Mike” phenomenon. So strong was the “Be Like Mike” zeitgeist that it was recorded in song and branded on T-shirts. Within the walls of basketball, almost all players who aspired to greatness would adopt the number 23. Most notably, Lebron James wore number 23 in high school and entered the NBA sporting the same number.

When Jordan achieved his first three-peat, his team was largely a collection of players who “grew-up” in the NBA alongside him, and did not have NBA titles to their names. On his second go around, Jordan was paired with NBA Champions from his own first three-peat alongside Champions from other teams, such as Dennis Rodman from the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys. In contrast, when Kobe won his three-peat, he was paired with a set of players who had already won Championships (eg. Robert Horry) or who had stronger reputations in the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal is a case in point.

Jordan’s Sunset, Kobe’s Last Surge: 2001–2003 Vs 2008–2011

Jordan’s return to the NBA was largely academic. Plagued by injury, he made the playoffs only once with the Wizards between 2001 and 2003. His retirement at the end of the season left MJ’s NBA achievements concrete. Jordan’s numbers set the benchmark for Kobe, and for all who aspired to be the greatest.

In the aftermath of his 2004 career trough, Bryant emerged from the shadows of his more accomplished teammates to become the face of the Laker franchise. And yet, one career feat eluded him: to supplant the ultimate great, Michael Jordan. Bryant’s adoption of the number 24 can be seen as a first step in his quest to replace Jordan as the all-time greatest.

Kobe’s number change was not just any random act; it was a deliberate move to be one more than Jordan, who wore 23. Coming into the 2007–2008 season Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and other members of the Lakers’ Championship teams of 2009 and 2010 were very accomplished. However, none of them appeared to be Bryant’s equal. Kobe was the unquestionable leader of these teams; he was chasing greatness and was the focal point. Winning the NBA MVP award in 2008, and achieving runner-up honours to Cleveland’s Lebron James in 2009 cemented his leadership of the team. Bryant was also finals MVP in both of these championship seasons for the Lakers. After the 2009–2010 season, at just 31 years old, Bryant stood at five Championships and had Jordan’s six championship target within reach. The Dallas Mavericks would ensure Kobe would not have another three-peat at the end of 2011. They swept the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, and went on to win the NBA title.

Kobe’s Longevity, Injuries and Diminishing Hopes: 2011–2016

Despite acquiring big names such as Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers and Kobe Bryant have not won a Championship since 2010. Bryant has been plagued by injury missing more than 75 per cent of the 2013–2014 season and the second half of the 2014–2015 season. Once Steve Nash’s injuries sidelined him in 2014, and Howard was all but out of the team it was clear that the window to surpass Jordan was closing on Bryant. As a matter of fact, his Laker team was so bad as at March 2014 that they were tied for the worst record in the Western Conference. The team also announced that Bryant would miss the remainder of the season. Kobe returned to a decimated Laker team in 2015, and has largely been on a farewell tour.

To say that Bryant falls short of Jordan is by no means an indictment. Kobe is a five time NBA Champion, with more individual accolades than there is space to document in this article. Simply put, the Mamba is a Legend! All season, players, fans and opposing fans alike have graciously acknowledged Kobe’s legendary status by honouring him wherever he plays. The public gave him the career achievement all-star nod by voting him into the 2016 All-star game. I feel compelled to call on Steven A. Smith’s favourite phrase twice to close out. “In the end” Kobe Bryant is not greater than Michael Jordan. However, “in the end” Kobe Bryant is a Legend in all things Basketball!