Basketball fans can be dumber than a box of anvils. "Where will we ever find another Michael Jordan?" they wail. If they'd only stop whining, they'd see someone right under their noses who could wind up better than Jordan.
I know, I know. I'm on crack. I'm a twit. I sleep with farm animals. But just listen for a second.
At 24, Kobe Bryant has three rings. At that age, Jordan had zero. At 24, Kobe has better all-around court sense, a better J and, unthinkably, even more madly creative mid-air Gumbyness than Jordan did. At 24, Kobe is hitting 38.5% of his treys; Jordan was shooting 18%. Over the last four weeks Kobe was on a mind-warping, pupil-popping, scorched-earth tear during which he scored 35 or more points in 13 straight games. Jordan hadn't done that at 24. Come to think of it, Jordan still hasn't done that.
"He's the best player in the game right now," Utah guard Mark Jackson said last week, after Kobe went for 40 points to help the Shaqless Lakers beat the Jazz. "He's playing basketball that's as good as I've seen in my career." Of course, Jackson's only been in the league for 16 years.
So why can't America embrace Kobe and his ozone-piercing potential? Why can't they realize that falling in love with Kobe doesn't mean breaking up with Michael? I mean, what's not to love?
Here's a young man who speaks fluent Italian, is married and has a child, and never shows up in the back of a squad car. Here's a pro who works out eight hours a day in the off-season, who one summer wouldn't go home until he'd made 1,000 jumpers a day. Here's a young god who's runway handsome, GQ cool and Eagle Scout nice.
In Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals in San Antonio last May, he blew up for 12 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Spurs. He was seconds from going live with NBC when he saw a small boy crying over the loss. He left the interviewer, went over and hugged the kid. Yet all anybody wants to do is line him up against Jordan and make sure he loses. Kobe's getting sick of it, and I don't blame him.
"People want to compare me with Michael in his prime," he says, "and that's unfair. I don't think I'm in my prime yet. I think a player's prime is, like, 26 to 30. I'm only 24. But that's all they want to talk about. They're not saying, 'Kobe worked really hard at getting better at this.' Or, 'This is what I appreciate about Kobe.' It's always what I do in relation to Michael. Like, they say my competitiveness came from watching Michael. It never crossed their minds that I've been like this since I was five."
Savor this kid. Wallow in his starshine. Be stupefied, mind-boggled, brain-bent. He's writing his legend right under our noses. Beats his man left-hand dribble, skies baseline and flushes over Yao Ming? Catches a long outlet, goes behind his back to lose a Denver Nugget and 360 slams? Driving the baseline, takes off outside the paint, loses Latrell Sprewell in midair and reverse dunks on the far side of the rim? And that's just in the last three weeks.
You want to argue? Bring it.