Hey, did you know that people like to compare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant? Fans do it, video editors do it, Kelly Dwyer does it (and Ernie Johnson told me Wednesday night that KD's a "good dude"), Larry Bird does it, and even Jordan himself does it. Seriously, it's basically the absolute favorite thing of everyone who likes basketball. I'm surprised you didn't know that.
One basketball lover, however, has largely been reticent to compare the two legendary shooting guards — Phil Jackson, the man who coached Jordan and Bryant through their respective championship-winning, Hall-of-Fame-securing primes with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. In his forthcoming book "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," however, the Zen Master opens up and shares his thoughts on the tale of the tape between two of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, who got an advance look at "Eleven Rings" and is sharing the wealth:
"Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe. He loved hanging out with his teammates and security guards, playing cards, smoking cigars, and joking around," Jackson said [...]
"Kobe is different. He was reserved as a teenager, in part because he was younger than the other players and hadn't developed strong social skills in college. When Kobe first joined the Lakers, he avoided fraternizing with his teammates. But his inclination to keep to himself shifted as he grew older. Increasingly, Kobe put more energy into getting to know the other players, especially when the team was on the road." [...]
"Jordan was also more naturally inclined to let the game come to him and not overplay his hand, whereas Kobe tends to force the action, especially when the game isn't going his way. When his shot is off, Kobe will pound away relentlessly until his luck turns. Michael, on the other hand, would shift his attention to defense or passing or setting screens to help the team win the game."
Jackson also gives M.J. the nod as the "tougher, more intimidating defender," whereas Bryant would "rely more heavily on his flexibility and craftiness," along with (occasionally ill-timed) gambles, on the defensive end.
The coach's evaluations all seem pretty evident and reasonable, emphasizing the slight but importance differences in applied physicality between the two 6-foot-6, 200-pound guards. It's interesting to note, though, that Jackson's analysis of the differences in teammate interaction don't totally dovetail with the experience expressed by trainer Tim Grover, who famously worked with both stars, in his recent book, "Relentless."
Here's how Grover describes it:
A lot of gifted people will lower their skills to close the gap between themselves and those around them, so others can feel more confident, involved, and relatively competitive. I've seen Kobe do that briefly when he has to, as a way to bring his teammates into the action and keep them engaged. It can work well depending on the other players, and as soon as Kobe sees his teammates stepping up, he'll revert to his natural game. It's a conscious decision to make the other guys feel as if they were one team, not one superstar surrounded by a second-rate supporting cast.
Michael went the other way and came right out and said it: that's my supporting cast.
His message was clear and unrelenting: Hey, I'm not bringing my game down so you can look better; you bring your game up so you can look better. He refused to put his own game in the backseat just to give other guys more action, unless you proved to him you could handle the responsibility.
Grover does note, however, that Jordan "never showed frustration on the court" and "always stayed positive, always had fun out there," only flipping his lid on underperforming teammates after the final buzzer. He also lends credence to the distance Bryant at times places between himself and his teammates, noting that Kobe "shoots along before the game, never on the same basket as the other guys," and that his teammates often stay away and "would never encroach on his space" out of "respect."
All told, we're talking about such small degrees of differentiation — on the court, off the court, in the locker room — that while the Zen Master's breakdown does seem to favor Jordan overall, it in no way denigrates Bryant's status as one of the greatest players of all time and arguably the second-greatest shooting guard in NBA history.
It does, however, appear to entrench Jordan as the greatest of all time in the mind of the man who'd know best. That measurement will likely sound about right to most of us, and probably will only fuel Bryant's fire as he rehabilitates from Achilles surgery in pursuit of a return to the court, a Jordan-equalling sixth ring and more buckets to chase down M.J. on the all-time scoring list.
That urge to measure up and prove himself was apparent in Bryant even in his early years, according to Jackson, who also relates a great story about a face-to-face meeting between Kobe and M.J. during Jackson's first year in L.A.:
"Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game. His obsession with Michael was striking," Jackson said. "When we played in Chicago that season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, 'You know I can kick your ass one on one.'"