If the distinguishing factor between the merely good and the transcendentally great is a combination of from-the-womb talent, proper coaching, and a few megatons of dedicated hard work, then what is the different between those who have and do all of those things? MJ and Kobe played the same position, had similar builds, tireless work ethics, monomaniacal focus, and a bloodthirsty competitiveness. But then what is it that compels so many of the most knowledgable basketball people to unequivocally declare MJ better than Kobe? MJ has 6 championships, Kobe has 5. MJ was 5 MVP awards, Kobe has 1. But to merely look at the accomplishments conflates the cause with the effect. What were the causal differences that propelled MJ to have a better career? I propose that their physical abilities are so close to equal to be indistinguishable. I propose that their dedication and commitment to the game are indistinguisable. So what was it?
Kobe Bryant’s Showtime documentary, directed by Deepak Chopra’s son, comes out this weekend, in the middle of another NBA stretch run with Kobe sidelined by injury. Instead of playing shooting guard, he’s doing a grand publicity tour during in what may be an attempt to write his own legacy, and to have an active and activist voice in how he is remembered. You can’t get through any Kobe media piece without an MJ mention, either by Kobe or the interviewer. MJ’s writ large presence is inescapable for Kobe. I was six years old when MJ was drafted by the Bulls, still too young to understand how good he was and how excited he made so many people. But by the late 80s, I was a sentient human being, and sports fandom was compelling and consuming. Memories of reading the Chicago Tribune sports section before school each day, and of listening to games on AM radio because my family didn’t have the cable tv station where most games were televised, and of watching the Bulls win 6 championships through high school and then later college, is easily in the top 3 emotional themes of my formative years. It sounds silly that a sports team that I had nothing to do with figures so largely in my childhood memories, but it does.
Kobe and I are essentially the same age. He is considered an old athlete, and at 36 he is and old athlete. So there exists a male who is considered one of the greatest practicioners of his craft, yet today he’s just a walking and talking statue reminding us of his past greatness. As a casual sports-fan, and an observer of the passage of time, it’s sobering to realize that a man my age is putting the final chapters on his accomplished career, that he’s had enough time to build a huge body of work that’s in the top ten basketball careers ever.
Back to the causal differences between MJ and Kobe. My thesis is that only two characertistics differentiat MJ and Kobe: socialability and pan-competitiveness.
‘Who is more competitive’ is irrelevant when you are talking about two guys that are as close to the maximum value possible. If there is a difference, it pales in comparison to the difference between the greats and the rest of the pack. What is different is that are legions of stories of MJ being competitive outside of basketball, and almost most none of Kobe.
MJ once lost a ping-pong game to a scrub on an early Bulls team. He then bought a ping pong table and practiced at home for six months. He then challenged the dude that beat him and beat him to a bloodly pulp.
There’s a story from Bill Simmons’ book about MJ hanging out with Charles Oakley at an All-Star game weekend, and as soon they got a table at the restaurant, they broke out the playing cards and started a fierce game of whatever it is they were playing. MJ immediately started cackling and talking shit and you could see everyone he was with get on edge from the way MJ psychologically intimidated them.
There’s the rumor, though MJ’s good friend Ahmad Rashad says it’s apocrpyhal, of MJ being so addicted to gambling that David Stern suspened him from the NBA, and the whole thing about him wanting to play baseball was a slight of hand to distract from the real reason he was forced out of the NBA.
MJ is so competitive and full of himself that he’s openly talked shit to the last two Democratic US presidents about their golf games.
This is the tip of the iceberg. Do some googling and you’ll find endless stories retold by witnesses and victims of MJ’s competitiveness. I find no such stories about Kobe. If you take the lack of evidence about Kobe’s non-basketball competitiveness as evidence of lacking, which admitedly is a shaky proposition, then perhaps Kobe’s singular focus was a deterrent to his game. I think there’s a psychological aspect to competition that is honed when you are forced to compete in domains where you aren’t totally dominant. It’s easy for Kobe to talk trash and assert his dominance on a basketball court, but what would that experience teach him about the psychology of competition? He could be a terrible talk trasher, have zero ability to read people and exploit mental weaknesses, and still dominate on the court. On the other hand MJ would compete in golf, ping-pong, Vegas table games, betting on who’s luggage came out of baggage claim first, and I think those experiences helped MJ to understand the psychology of competition, not just basketball competition. Since MJ was always on and ready to compete, I’d imagine his competitors and teammates viscerally felt his relentless, and that after the 48 minutes of regulation were over that you still weren’t safe from his wrath. Either you compete against it, or you submit to his dominance.
MJ’s competititiveness dovetails nicely with my next point about what differentiates Kobe and MJ: MJ is intensely social, Kobe is not.
While Kobe denies that he has no friends, he does admit that he has prioritized work above being social. From what I can tell, the guy really has no friends. Choosing work over friends is a false choice anyway. Kobe’s profession is basketball, you require other people to play the game, why can’t you be social with them, or any of the dozens of staff that are inevitably around the game?
MJ arrived in Chicago and knew no one, so he asked his driver at the airport to look out for him , and thus was borne a friendship that persists to this day. He and Charles Oakley, one of the baddest motherfuckers to ever put on an NBA jersey are extremely close. Ahmad Rashad, the sideline reporter for NBC during Jordan’s halycon 90s days used to stay at Michael’s house the nights before games. They’re still close friends.
Jordan’s competitiveness along with his natural socialability is what made him better than Kobe. Players were afraid of Jordan. Coaches warned players not to talk shit to MJ, because he’d use it as a reason to destroy you. Now imagine that not only were you beat on the court, but you lost to an social alpha-dog with a biting tongue and the ability to befriend others and effectively mock you in front of them. MJ had the ability to beat you physically, mentally, and psychologically. That is terrifying. I don’t think players were ever really afraid of Kobe. They respect him, yes, and his work ethic, but whatever damage Kobe can do was limited to the confines of the basketball court. Jordan could wreck you permantently. And that’s the difference between the two.