Kobe Bryant: Better Teammate Than MJ?
Written on January 26, 2008 by Josh Tucker (The Apologist)
MJ is the greatest player to have ever played basketball, to date.
With that said, let me help you with those rose-colored glasses you’re probably wearing.
There are many misconceptions people have formulated regarding His Airness, the one and only Michael Jordan. One of these things is what kind of teammate he was.
To see this retroactive glorification of all things Michael Jordan, one need look no farther than that phrase that everyone uses: “makes his teammates better.” It has been a much used phrase for many years, but its usage has unquestionably increased exponentially since the appearance of one Kobe Bean Bryant on the basketball scene.
Why Kobe? Simple: He was the first player since Michael Jordan that appeared to have the talent and the potential to challenge for Jordan’s throne as “the greatest.” (Now, don’t get carried away — I didn’t say he was the greatest, and I’m not saying that he is. And for all those who question, I will say it clearly, right now: Kobe Bryant is not greater than Michael Jordan was. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. Only time will tell. All I have said is that, at the time, it appeared that he had the potential.)
Why did that matter? Again, simple: It was too soon. People weren’t ready for a “next Jordan.” People weren’t ready, so soon after he had breathed new life into the sport of basketball and taken his spot on his all-time throne of greatness, to think that someone could surpass him. And so, it was necessary for people to find ways to criticize Kobe’s game, and to make it seem that it was absurd to think of him as a potential Heir to the Air. And in the minds of many, that smear campaign has succeeded.
These days, and for several years, Kobe has been dismissed, as with a wave of the hand or a shrug of the shoulders. When any other criticisms may fail, simply call him a ball hog, a selfish player, and then end the conversation with, “He doesn’t make his teammates better.”
How does this relate to Michael Jordan? Because that’s often what comes next. “Michael Jordan made everyone he played with better. Kobe doesn’t do that.” That’s what they say. “He’s a great offensive player, but he doesn’t make those around him better, not like Mike did.”
Do you see how that works? MJ must love it. After all, Kobe Bryant is the best thing to happen to him since Nike. When he retired (again), he was the greatest in the game. He was immortalized. But when Kobe showed up, the need to create distance between him and Jordan erased all of Michael’s flaws. You see, Jordan made himself the greatest in the eyes of the world. But Kobe made him perfect, unable to do any wrong.
To the point that what they say is, “He doesn’t make his teammates better, like Jordan did.”
It’s not, “He doesn’t make his teammates better, like Magic Johnson did” — the leader of what may have been the most formidable team in history, who made the game easier for his teammates than anyone else likely ever has.
It’s not, “He doesn’t make his teammates better, like John Stockton did” — the all-time assist leader.
It’s not, “He doesn’t make his teammates better, like Steve Nash does” — the penultimate teammate of our current era (does anyone else see Shawn Marion or Amare Stoudamire being as good as they are on any other team?).
It’s not, “He doesn’t make his teammates better, like Jason Kidd does” — the purported “best point guard in the NBA” (that was LBJ), who “knows when you’re open even when you don’t know it” (coming full circle, that was Kobe Bryant).
You see, usually, when you want to make a clear example of what someone is not, you compare them to someone who is the epitome of that thing. So how is it that Michael Jordan has become the ultimate teammate, despite the existence of players like Magic, Stockton, Nash, and Kidd?
Kobe Bryant, that’s how. That’s what Kobe has done for Micheal. In their eagerness to dismiss Kobe, fans have retro-actively glorified even those aspects of Jordan’s game that, in truth, could have been even better. That’s no knock against Michael. It’s just that, as far as being the ultimate teammate and making his teammates better is concerned, he simply wasn’t Magic Johnson or John Stockton. He wasn’t even Jason Kidd or Steve Nash.
And with that said, I’m going to do the unforgivable. I’m going to bring this full circle, and I’m going to compare Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan.
Here it is: Kobe Bryant is a better teammate than Michael Jordan was.
There are many points one could make. I could point out the easily overlooked and forgotten fact that Michael has punched his own teammate in the face (I wonder how Steve Kerr feels about the kind of teammate Jordan was? Not that he would say so in a press conference, but how does really feel?) But it’s easier than that. Kwame Brown is a living, breathing, walking, talking “case in point.”
You’ll never hear Kwame tell the press how he really feels about Michael Jordan. To speak ill of him would be sacrilegious, and would mean only bad things for Kwame. But I would suggest that we don’t need to inject Kwame with truth serum to understand how Kwame might feel about Jordan — and, in kind, how he might feel about Kobe Bryant.
I recently shared this article with a friend of mine. He loves basketball, and Jordan is his idol. Or, he was. He grew up playing basketball. Now, at work, he still goes out on his breaks, in his work clothes, and plays basketball. And he comes in dirty and sweaty, and during those moments I’m glad I don’t share a cubicle with him (for my nose’s sake). I only say this to illustrate how much he loves the game of basketball. And he idolized Michael Jordan.
And then I told him that Michael Jordan has called Kwame Brown a “flaming ******.” He was shocked and appalled. So I found the above article for him. He was completely distraught. In his eyes, he couldn’t call Jordan the greatest anymore. He doesn’t question his talent, athletic ability, and competitive drive — no one could. But he can’t stomach the kind of treatment he gave to Kwame Brown.
The way he sees it, Jordan was back from his second retirement. He was no longer as dominant as he had been; he was getting to old for that. But he was still very, very good. Nonetheless, no one figured the Wizards for a championship team.
The way he sees it, this was Jordan’s chance to give back. This was an opportunity for young Wizards players, in the midst of a rebuilding period for the team, to play with “the greatest there ever was”, and to learn from him. This was a chance for him to be a coach on the floor. A time for him to build up the young guys, to encourage.
If ever there was a time for Jordan to be the ultimate teammate, to encourage, build up, and make his teammates better, this was it.
Instead, Michael Jordan used the time to consistently, routinely, and contstantly tear down a tentative rookie, using horrible, derogative terms towards a young man brimming with potential, who undoubtedly idolized him.
The way my co-worker sees it, Michael Jordan destroyed Kwame Brown. No one could have survived that. As a basketball player, coming into the league when he did, Michael Jordan was legend in skin. He was every basketball player’s idol and hero.
And he crushed Kwame Brown’s spirit.
The way he sees it now, it was always all about Michael Jordan. It wasn’t about anyone else. Even his second comeback, when he clearly wasn’t going to win any more championships, and was criticized by some for completely disrupting what should have been a rebuilding period for the Wizards, it was all about Michael Jordan. And when a young center who was never given a chance to gain experience and find his way after going into the NBA straight from high school didn’t measure up to The Great Michael Jordan’s standards, Micheal Jordan unleashed his wrath and disgust upon him.
The way my co-worker sees it, Kwame Brown’s fragile psyche and constant lack of confidence are Michael Jordan’s doing.
Fast-forward several years. It’s 2008, and Andrew Bynum is having a breakout year. Fans are beginning to look for the 28/16/6 games, which are showing up more frequently, and can hardly contain their excitement for his future. And in one game, it all comes crashing down. (At least, for 8 weeks, at which point he can hopefully pick up where he left off.)
That leaves the Lakers with Kwame Brown in the middle. Kwame “Stonehands” Brown, who has never been worth much in a Lakers uniform. Kwame “Cake Thrower” Brown, who is probably more well known for his off-court antics than for anything positive he has ever done on the court. Kwame “gets the least out of the most talent” Brown, who is regarded as one of the biggest bust of all #1 draft picks.
In his first home game as a starter, Kwame was horrible. I cringed every time he touched the ball. I pulled my hair out when he pulled up for a 17-foot jumpshot — and missed badly. I was almost suicidal when he commited 4 turnovers in the 3rd quarter, as well as missing an uncontested dunk, two layups, and a short jump hook.
It was no surprise that the fans started booing Kwame every time he touched the ball. According to reports, they did so every single time he had the ball in the 3rd quarter — and loudly.
But his teammates — led by one Kobe “doesn’t make his teammates better” Bryant — kept giving him the ball. Again. And again. And again. As a fan and a spectator, it was inexplicable. Why would they do such a thing? I was incredulous. Take him out! I cheered when Ronny Turiaf replaced him — less for Ronny than for Kwame taking his spot on the bench. Finally!
After the game, Kobe — the poor teammate, who supposedly cannot bear underachievers — defended Kwame.
“I thought it was terrible,” Kobe Bryant said after the game. “If [fans] want to do that, they can stay home. He’s going to be our guy for two months. Kwame’s sensitive — you boo him, it’s going to affect him. I told him I’ve got his back.”
Make no mistake: Kwame Brown was horrible! Kobe Bryant would have had every excuse to have been disgusted. But Kobe had his back. And he showed confidence in Kwame, saying he expected him to come back with a good game.
And he did. And the fans cheered him in the next game, against Denver. But how different might it have been if the player recognized as the best player currently in the game had derided him, torn him down, and criticized him.
And tell me this: Do you think, with the way Kwame was playing in the third quarter of the Phoenix game, that Michael Jordan — who made a regular habit of criticizing him, demeaning him, and tearing him down — would have continued to give him the ball, and give him another chance? I think not.
So you tell me. Who’s the better teammate? The one who really had no hopes of a championship, whose best days had come and gone, and who found himself in the role of a mentor — and responded by crushing and utterly destroying a promising young player? Or the one who does have championship hopes, who is in his prime, who has everything to play for — everything to win for — and still supports his teammate, gives him the ball despite his failures (and even though it might have cost him the game), and has his back when an entire arena full of people turn on him?
As a teammate, I’d choose the latter. Every time. And I bet Kwame Brown would do the same.
I said before that MJ was the greatest player in the game. And it’s true — there has been none better than Magic Johnson. And for now, Michael Jordan can have the #2 spot. But who knows when another player — and a better teammate — might take over that #2 spot. Only time will tell.