defense, Bryant has no peer. He can avoid defenders like a stunt driver
swerving through oncoming traffic. He can blow by for a dunk, pull up for a
short jumper or simply rise up and hit a long-range, heavily contested
With his back to
the defense, Bryant is equally dangerous. If a defender gives him space, he
faces up and banks in a jump shot. If a defender crowds him, he speeds past or
overpowers him. If he's double-teamed, he up-fakes, pivots and squeezes between
defenders for a layup, almost always without traveling. Innate athleticism
aside, he has labored like a Broadway dancer to perfect his footwork.
the league in scoring, Bryant ranked in the top 10 at week's end in steals,
minutes, field goals attempted, field goals made, three-pointers attempted,
three-pointers made, free throws attempted, free throws made and player
It's been three
decades since a player from a .500-level team was the league's MVP--that was
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took the 1975--76 award even though his Lakers
finished 40--42. With Bryant's Lakers 41--37 and tied for seventh place in the
Western Conference through Sunday, even the "M-V-P!" cheers that erupt
from time to time in Staples Center are tepid. But his play has been so
outstanding this season that he must be on any short list of candidates.
saying that he's the most valuable player, but he's certainly the best
player," says Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "And it's not even
close. He is utterly dominant."
III. THE GHOST
At times Bryant
almost eerily channels Michael Jordan on the court--the same fadeaway jumper,
the same feral, crouched-panther stance on defense, the same pigeon-toed walk
downcourt. But the debate over whether Kobe is the next Jordan is settled. As
much as Madison Avenue might have wanted Bryant's crossover appeal to be as
impressive as his crossover dribble, it is not. Jordan's default facial
expression was a wide smile, Bryant's a cloudy frown. Still, the specter of
Jordan looms inescapably over Bryant.
Like Jordan, he is
capable of reducing even All-Stars to little kids in his presence. In a nearly
deserted hallway long after a late-March game against Sacramento, Bryant
emerged from the locker room to find his wife, Vanessa, and three-year-old
daughter, Natalia, waiting for him. Kings forward Ron Artest, whom Bryant had
badly outplayed on this evening, came by, carrying a throwaway camera and his
five-year-old son, Ron Ron. "Kobe, would you take a picture with my
boy?" Artest asked, the way a timid kid would ask a teacher for a favor.
"Sure," said Kobe, stationing himself between Natalia and Ron Ron as
Artest snapped away.
While Jordan, too,
could be forbidding to other players, he also projected warmth--far more than
Bryant does. "When players sit around, Kobe's not a guy you might talk
about and say, 'He's such a good dude,' like a Kevin Garnett,'" says Los
Angeles Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley. "Nobody knows Kobe that well. He's
not a sociable guy. That's not a fault; it's just his preference. When I was a
rookie [in Houston], Scottie Pippen told me that Michael would go out with his
teammates sometimes. He included guys and balanced everything out. I'm not sure
Kobe does that."
"From a talent
standpoint, he may be better than Jordan was at this stage of his career,"
says Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "The part of his game that he has to get
better as opposed to Jordan is in the leadership department, how players
respond to him, how he gets along, creating a chemistry. Players loved playing
with Jordan. I don't know whether they do with Kobe."