The impact of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird cannot be understated when discussing the growth in mainstream popularity of the National Basketball Association. However, it’s the three-decade legacy of Michael Jordan, and the now stunningly departed Kobe Bryant that may be more important. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant achieved differently dynamic achievements. However, when examined together, a dynastic three-decades emerges. They are best studied via two five year cycles (Jordan from 1988–93, Kobe from 2005–10) which they dominated, and in doing so aided in the expansive growth of basketball as the best showcase of American and global popular culture. In developing as the best basketball players at points wherein uniquely, their incredible talent elevates basketball, sports, and the world-at-large, iconic legacies become apparent.
Michael Jordan evolved the National Basketball Association from being charismatic national entertainment to being an athletic love letter from America to the world. Comparatively, Kobe Bryant extended professional basketball into being a love letter from the world to its citizens, explaining how high-performance athletics can showcase the world’s most perfect harmony.
If trying to make the argument that Michael was better than Kobe or vice versa, stop immediately. They are best if regarded together as the most critical players in the global emergence of professional basketball as the most globally significant and pop-culturally dominant athletic endeavor of the modern age. Now, bittersweetly — with Jordan retired and Kobe deceased — it’s vital that we properly contemplate the blueprint for zeitgeist dominance established by Jordan and Bryant.
Here are some fascinating stats to consider:
- From 1988–1993, Michael Jordan averaged 32 points per game. He also averaged seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals while playing 39 minutes per game. In this era, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were three-time NBA champions, and Jordan himself was twice the league’s Most Valuable Player.
- From 2005–2010, Kobe Bryant averaged 30 points per game. He also averaged six rebounds, five assists, and two steals while playing 39 minutes per game. In this era, Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers were two-time NBA champions, and Bryant himself was once the league’s Most Valuable Player.
There’s no better way to more closely examine the excellence of the combined force of Kobe and Jordan than to mirror the duo at age 29 when Jordan’s 1992–93 Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns, and Bryant’s 2008–09 Lakers bested the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Championship.
“Everything was a pain in the ass for Michael that season. He had pretty much-accomplished everything, so what more could you ask him to do?” When asked by Sports Illustrated about Michael Jordan in 1992, Chicago Bulls director of public relations Tim Hallam responds intriguingly. The article, as mentioned earlier, quotes Hallam and regards the 1993 NBA Finals between the Bulls and the Phoenix Suns as “The Best Finals Ever.” This arrogant statement is sensical because the modern history of basketball’s global evolution would have likely halted had Michael and the Bulls lost to Charles Barkley and the Suns.
By 1992, Michael Jordan was an already iconic American hero. Also, as the NBA’s superstar lead, he played a key, simultaneous role in the booming economic fortunes of both global sports and business. His Nike Air Jordan sneaker was in its eighth iteration, and Nike, as a company overall, was 200% wealthier. The NBA, as a league, earned 500% more revenue, too, becoming a billion-dollar a year earner. However, on the court, the Phoenix Suns signing Charles Barkley as a critical component piece of their already strong team raised many questions if Barkley could eclipse Jordan’s superstar excellence.
Following the 1992–93 NBA Finals, Nike — the company behind Air Jordan — released a commercial featuring Charles Barkley, where he noted he was “not a role model.” Regarding the NBA’s evolution from national entertainment to a globally-beloved highlight reel, having someone willing to embrace the “role model” label certainly makes it simpler.
Regarding this, the Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone — a then fellow 1992 era NBA star — said the following to Sports Illustrated:
I do agree with Charles on one thing he says in his commercial: “Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” But sometimes parents need a little assist. There are times when it helps for a mother and father to be able to say to their kids, “Do you think Karl Malone or Scottie Pippen or Charles Barkley or David Robinson would do that?” To me, if someone uses my name in that way, it’s an honor. Sure, parents should be role models to their children. But let’s face it, kids have lots of other role models — teachers, movie stars, athletes, even other kids. As athletes, we can’t take the place of parents, but we can help reinforce what they try to teach their kids.
In his 16-year career, Charles Barkley never won an NBA Championship. In the 1992–93 NBA Finals versus Barkley’s Suns, Michael Jordan recorded the highest scoring average in a Finals series ever with 41.0 ppg. When sensing that both his place as the most on-court and commercially dominant professional of his generation — as well as a role model leader of basketball’s global ascension — was in trouble, he elevated his quality of play. In doing so, he retained the ability to be the singular star able to pass the reigns to Bryant, another rare star with a much different legacy to create.
By 2008, the National Basketball Association had expanded from being a league where global onlookers gawked at NBA players like celebrity icons playing sports at an unattainable standard. Veteran Chinese center Yao Ming was 7’6” tall and after joining the NBA in 2002 was a four-time All-Star. Seven-foot tall German sharpshooter Dirk Nowitzki was a decade into playing in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks and was already one of the league’s best overall players. The league had embraced globalism before, but players like Sudanese big man Manute Bol and lumbering Romanian giant Gheorge Muresan were not impacting stars to the degree of the tandem mentioned above.
Even stateside, expectations were exploding. Kobe Bryant joined the league as a 17-year old high school-to-NBA draftee in 1996, similar to forward Kevin Garnett a year prior. The standard both Bryant and Garnett established as the energetic teenage stars of the future were blown away just seven years later by LeBron James.
By 2008, James was on the precipice of superstardom, on a trajectory to eclipse Kobe Bryant’s apparent excellence.
In 2008, Kobe Bryant — much like Michael Jordan before him in 1992 — eclipsed existing levels of expectation of superstar talent. When asked by the Los Angeles Times about his mindset headed into the 2008–09 NBA season, Bryant recalled a moment at the end of the 2007–08 season’s NBA Finals loss to the Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce-led Boston Celtics:
“I remember when we were losing, they played that Journey song, and the whole arena started singing. I hated that song for two years. I listened to the song every single day just to remind me of that feeling. Same thing with the Dropkick Murphys — I listened to the Dropkick Murphys all the time just because I wanted to remember that feeling.”
Game 1 of the 2008–09 NBA Finals saw Kobe Bryant score 40 points in a 100–75 rout of the Orlando Magic. “When he gets it going, he’s one of the best players of all time,” his 2008–09 teammate Lamar Odom told the New York Times. Continuing, Bryant noted — in a way nodding to the level of unique focus shown in the above quote — “I just want it so bad, that’s all. I just want it really bad. You just put everything you have into the game, and your emotions kind of flow out of you.” When asked what the Magic could do in the future against Bryant, 2008–09 season Magic player Dwight Howard responded, “Pray that he does miss.”
Kobe Bryant’s excellence ushered in an era wherein esteemed high school-to-pro players like James and Kevin Durant, all-around star Kawhi Leonard, and three-point specialist Stephen Curry were able to excel on a much higher level of proximity to the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Kobe’s ability to elevate his performance when the league and world as a whole had met Michael Jordan’s standard of success is incredibly impressive.
As a league with Kobe Bryant emerging as its centerpiece star, the NBA’s revenues increased 100% between Bryant’s 2005–2010 career explosion. Also expanding upon Jordan’s accomplishments, when Kobe Bryant signed with Nike in 2003, it gave Nike control of 40 percent of the U.S. athletic shoe industry. Also, when Nike signed Michael Jordan in 1985, the company was fighting with Converse having Magic Johnson and Larry Bird both under deals and controlling the sneakers and athletes industry. In 2003 besides signing Bryant, Nike purchased Converse. Moreover, as of 2015, Nike — a brand with both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant under contract — controlled 62% of the athletic shoe industry.
In his 2013-released book Eleven Rings, NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson — who coached both Jordan and Bryant to championships — notes that “There was something coachable about Michael that Kobe didn’t have. But Kobe had an irrepressible fire.” Continuing, Jackson states, “One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s superior skills as a leader. Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he’d yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had in his bones.”
Outside of Jackson’s commentary, it may be necessary to note Bryant’s intangible quality of being inarguably one of sports’ greatest winners. The archetype of success seemed ingrained in his DNA. For what Jordan needed to be coached out of him, Bryant exuded. It’s an intriguing difference and something that may have allowed Bryant the ability to expand Jordan’s standard of greatness uniquely.
There are no words to describe the incredible grief surrounding the death of Kobe Bryant. However, in contemplating what Magic and Larry bore, both he and Michael Jordan made into a worldwide pop cultural legacy is essential. In elevating professional basketball from a game played on a court to an extension of life and culture that unified the world, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant deserve immense credit. In what happens after Kobe bearing the imprint of Magic, Larry, and Michael — the three stars whose talents gelled into what became the iconic style of play that defined Kobe’s twenty-year career — the dynamic future of basketball as possibly now the best of all sports and thus reflecting the best of our lives and selves, exists.