Every few years the NBA trots out another beta version of Michael 2.0, the latest contender for the title of Next Jordan. So far none have lived up to the billing. Now, though, the NBA finds itself with not one but two players, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and the Raptors' Vince Carter, with claim to the title—and with it the responsibility of carrying David Stern's tattoo-scarred league to another golden age.
If one thing has become obvious in the two years since MJ retired, however, it's that there will be no Next Jordan. Even were a player to approximate his talent—and Bryant, at 22, may be further along than Jordan was at the same age—he would still have to vie with the legend of Michael, burnished as it is by six rings. Ten years down the road someone may astound fans the way Jordan did, but not now. His supremacy is too fresh in the public's mind.
The answer to the NBA's post-Michael prayers may lie in the pre-Michael era, when the league was propelled not by one player but by the interplay of two: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Back then, as Johnson described it, "When the new schedule would come out each year, I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me it was The Two and the other 80."
While no pair today is as perfectly cast as Bird and Magic were, the best candidates to match that rivalry's dynamism may well be Carter, 23, and Bryant. Both are prolific offensive players (through Sunday, Kobe led the league with 29.3 points per game and Vince was third at 28.1), both are young leaders on contending teams, and both are capable of acrobatics most players couldn't pull off on a Nerf hoop. Most important, each possesses star quality.
The parallels aren't perfect. Even in the wide open Eastern Conference, the Raptors aren't yet championship material. Also, Toronto lacks L.A.'s media presence and Boston's basketball lineage. As for Bryant, he must share top billing with a certain 7'1" superman.
Even so, Bryant and Carter have become, along with Allen Iverson (the Isiah Thomas to their Magic and Bird?), the game's most compelling players not named O'Neal. A sure sign of their grassroots appeal is how often you hear Who's better? debates among fans. No less an authority than Jordan stoked the fire last spring when he proclaimed that Bryant was better all-around because Carter "doesn't play defense."
This Sunday, Vince will have a chance to prove His Airness wrong when Kobe's Lakers come to Toronto for the teams' first meeting of the season. Here's to hoping it turns into Game 1 of The Two.