During halftime of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, ABC aired a segment that featured Kobe Bryant(notes) watching clips of some of the great players who came before him, then explaining to longtime Boston Globe hoops scribe (and recent recipient of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's annual Curt Gowdy Media Award) Jackie MacMullan how growing up studying their excellence helped influence his game.
"I've seriously - I've stolen all these moves from these great players," Bryant says with a laugh.
The four-and-a-half-minute feature is an all-time great's paean to his antecedents, and it's a must-watch for folks that dig the finer points of the game. It's packed with insights into the kind of minutiae that separate the good from the great, like when Bryant gushes about Oscar Robertson "using his body" — including "that big ol' booty" — in the service of "freezing the defender and creating space." (As he watches the Big O drain a fadeaway jumper on the baseline, Bryant says, "I actually won the game with that one against Toronto.")
Over the course of the film session, Bryant waxes poetic about Jerry West's "absolutely vicious" pull-up jumper, the beautiful footwork that enabled Elgin Baylor to make "an uncomfortable move" look "absolutely natural," Magic Johnson's preternatural knack for "seeing things before they ever happen" and more.
He also reveals that, in his view, watching the way that opponents tried to guard the greats can be just as instructive: "I'm actually watching the defender a lot, trying to figure out what he's seeing in the offensive player to make him do what he's doing, or why that made sense ... What is he thinking in that moment? Why did that move work?"
Bryant is a little more circumspect when talking about Michael Jordan - he doesn't single out a particular element of his game for praise — and even makes the somewhat-difficult-to-believe claim that he "wasn't a fan of" Jordan's as a kid:
I was a big Magic fan, and so when Michael was coming along, it was kind of like a territorial kind of thing where, you know, I wanted to see Magic win. But then, once I realized I wasn't going to be 6-foot-9 like my dad, that I was pretty much stuck at this height, that I started seeing a lot of similarities in terms of physique and things like that, things that I could learn from him, at that size and how he worked.
Whether or not you buy the tone of Bryant's statement — "I mean, I don't really like the most iconic and magnetizing figure in this sport I love to play and am excellent at, but since our bodies kind of look the same, I guess I'll start paying attention to what's up with him" — it's not necessarily a slight. Plus, as you might have heard, Kobe's got the same kind of "ruthless" competitive nature as MJ, so you don't really expect him to be as forthcoming with "Michael's the best" as some other players.
There's just one downside to Kobe's comments: He joined in on the now-tired meme of comparing basketball players to superheroes:
For some, [their skill is] passing. Me, I'm the best - I'm a scorer. I mean, that's what I do. I look at it like superheroes. Some have webs, some can fly, some can ... you know what I mean? Everyone has their own thing that they do well or do better than the others.
All right, guys, fine. Shaquille O'Neal(notes), Dwight Howard(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and now, via Kobe, everybody else in the NBA are all superheroes. I'll only accept this if it means that D-Leaguers are like characters from independent and creator-owned comics. I think we'd all like to live in a world where Rob Kurz(notes) is Evil Ernie and Latavious Williams is Bone.
- Michael Jordan