Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kobe Bryant: The Best to Never Revolutionize the Game

“So, presently I'm standing here right now. You're so demanding. Tell me what you want from me.”

Lyric from: Window Seat from the album New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh 
Written By: Erykah Badu and James Poyser 
Performed by: Erykah Badu

Photo of Kobe Bryant courtesy of Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Yesterday Tracy McGrady announced that he was headed to China to play for the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association . In a statement that was as much about his relocation as it was about bidding farewell to the NBA, McGrady used the declaration to offer poignant, heartfelt thanks to some of his NBA brethren including a quick nod to Kobe Bryant.
“Kobe, you made me work harder and, it was an honor to play against you,” he wrote.
And so again, it has come to this, one of this generation’s most promising talents reflecting on his career in a decidely past tense.
After being selected ninth overall in the 1997 NBA draft, a pairing with Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors helped Tracy McGrady find his place among the league’s breakout stars. But in a career that just seemed to have left him floundering in the desert, the former seven-time all-star and two-time scoring champion never led a team to the promised land, not even to the second round of the playoffs.
It seems that Bryant has been in a reflective mood of late as well. Preparing to embark on the third chapter in his 16-year (and counting) career, his is not the story of unrealized potential.
The additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers roster during this offseason and the impending end of his current contract two years from now have him talking about enjoying a championship swansong and an inevitable passing of the baton.
And fans have been more than happy to stir the pensive pot.
The thought of an NBA with no Kobe Bryant has renewed our obsession with the Kobe vs. MJ debate and its 1.a and 1.b. counterparts-Is Kobe still better than LeBron? And Can LeBron ever eclipse Jordan?
My own contemplation regarding the Black Mamba has led me down a different path with an altogether different consideration.
When Bryant is done playing, will we ever see an up and comer and proclaim him the next Kobe Bryant?
I will concede this point to you now; I am a fan of Kobe’s work. Therefore, I hope you will fight your urge to dismiss this column as libel.
No one with half a brain can deny his magnitude. The proof is in his championships, his career stats, his highlights, his intensity, his confidence, his arrogance, the respect he commands on the floor and the many more McGrady-like tributes to come.
Regardless of whether he ties Michael Jordan with a sixth championship, we will always remember him as the closest thing we have ever seen to Jordan.
And therein lies the problem.
He is a distinguished copy instead of a groundbreaking original.
Bryant’s pump fake is masterful and, his footwork is flawless. Watching him get to his spots on the floor is like observing art in motion.
But I more often than not get the sense that I’m watching someone who chose to make his way in this league by becoming Jordan, having long ago forsaken the opportunity to be the first Kobe Bryant.
And while that choice will not keep him from being featured near the top of the NBA’s list of all time greats, it will never earn him a spot on the mantle with the game’s revolutionaries.
When it’s all said and done, whatever that means and whenever that is, Bryant may rank top-5 all time. He’ll be there with Magic Johnson who introduced us to the idea of a big, multitalented point guard with dazzling handles and awe-inspiring court vision. Larry Bird will be there too, a legend whose versatility and superb outside shot gave us a new appreciation of the forward position.
Jordan of course will reign supreme with a list of accolades that reveal his brilliance on the court and his significance to the business of basketball. And KB24 will be there as one of the best to have done it so consistently, for so long earning all of the game’s top honors.
All while being this generation’s Michael Jordan incarnate.
Who knows, the fifth spot might ultimately go to LeBron James. He’ll likely have fewer championships but what he may lack in hardware, he’ll make up for with innovation. His athleticism and his ability to perform at a high level at positions one through four on the court just might earn him the distinct privilege of pioneering a type of player.
Like Johnson, Bird and Jordan before him, his name might someday exist on the good side of proper noun and adjective duality.
For what it's worth, however, Bryant is not alone in this unoriginal fate.
In fact, his modern day, NFL equivalent may very well be Tom Brady.
Brady, for all his comparisons to Joe Montana, will probably finish his career with more Super Bowl wins than both Peyton Manning and Michael Vick combined only to have his feats somewhat upstaged by the success they achieved while also transforming the quarterback position.
And so If we are very lucky, we may one day witness the next elder Manning and Vick to come, if not the evolution of those players.
For Bryant and Brady alike this lot is the unforgiving downside of having your greatness best characterized by its resemblance to the greatness of another.
Kobe Bryant might retire in two years and, he has treated us to unmistakable majesty on this journey.
Even if it has felt a little familiar.