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Thursday, May 24, 2001
Updated: September 13, 7:07 PM ET
MJ vs. Kobe @ 22

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Now that the NBA title is in the bag for the Lakers, and we're playing out the string, curious to see if the Sixers can take a couple games off them, we can join Road Dog in a popular NBA pastime.

Kobe Bryant,
Finding little competition in high school -- or even college -- Kobe went straight to the NBA.
We can compare Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. At age 22. For keeps.

Let's start with the bashing -- the Kobe-bashing. Even his own coach, Phil Jackson, bashed Kobe during the regular season, saying Kobe had an outsized ego, that he bagged games in high school until the end, so he could pull 'em out, be a hero.

Another head coach, Armond Hill, of Columbia University, formerly a fine student at Princeton, then with the Atlanta Hawks, remembers it this way. "Most high school players didn't even want to go out there and play against Kobe. Some college ones, too. Just shook their heads. Awed."

So maybe Kobe had to pull off a little in high school, just to get a run, be challenged, get a game ...

Road Dog: "I don't care what you say. He ain't no Jordan."

R-Dub: "Yeah, he is. I'll be the Devil on this one. Remember the commercial 'Like Mike, wanna be Like Mike.' You can't just put it out there like that, else some young smart-alecky kid'll take you up on it."

Road Dog: "I ain't put nothing out nowhere. Like Jordan? Nah. That's ... Sacto Tank."

R-Dub: "You mean 'sacrosanct.' Odds are Kobe will be better than MJ, one day. Usually how it works."

A brief history and comparison of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant at age 22:

The college career
Michael Jordan
Jordan had the experience of winning a national title at UNC and learning from Dean Smith. Kobe did not.
Road Dog: "At 22 , says my homie Spike Lee, 'Money didn't have a Shaq, he had Bill Cartwight. And before that, Money had coach (Dean) Smith, the Tar Heel Legacy, ACC Wars, NC2A Wars, hitting The Jump Shot against Ewing and G-Town in '82 before a cool 60 thou walk-up at the Louisiana Superdome. Kobe had none of that.' So I'm down with that.

"Plus, MJ was rootless. I like rootless. He kept on making a pin-cushion out of Patrick his whole career. Hadda forgive him for it, since Ewing was a Knick. And I did. Money was NBA Rookie of the Year. Wind & Waves parted before him. The Bulls were his squad already."

R-Dub: "Rootless? You mean 'ruthless,' Dog. At 22, Kobe told the NCAA to take a hike four years ago. After Mike helped prove what a good NCAA Division 1-A player was worth, in terms of drawing a crowd (and setting value for a multi-billion TV contract), by the time Kobe came through, they still weren't being paid.

"Kobe's people asked the NCAA to go pimp someone else. Can't hold it against them. Kobe could've profited from being around Dean Smith or John Chaney, but he also could've been around Bob Huggins.

"He's already making a pincushion out of David Robinson, and Tim B. Dunkin', too, if he gets in the way. Kobe had taken big-time end-game playoff shots against rivals -- the Utah Jazz. He missed, but his Laker squad's learning curve was shorter.

"The Detroit Pistons -- remember The Jordan Rules? -- beat on the Bulls like they were somebody else's bongos until Scottie Pippen sucked it up and didn't leave Mike hanging."

The front office fatal draft mistake
Road Dog: "Dude named Stu Inman at Portland, right around the corner from Nike world headquarters, passed on Money with the No. 2 pick in '84. We all know he picked a 7-foot center, Sam Bowie from Kentucky. They say Stu was a sweetheart. His son-in-law was a big soft center from Oregon State named Steve Johnson, and Stu didn't even mind much, that he was soft. But he's still the reason why people never say they draft for 'need,' but for 'the best player available.'

Michael Jordan
The Blazers passed on Air Jordan in the 1984 draft because they already had The Glide.
"In 1984, Stu was quoted saying, 'We already have a player like that,' talkin' 'bout Money, and the guy he had, Clyde Drexler. Which goes to show, Stu may a been nice, but he don't know much about Money, or about Glide, for that matter."

R-Dub: "Kobe can't top that one. But a former Portland Trail Blazers backup point guard named Dave Twardzik has the honors in his case. Twardzik was briefly and regrettably given charge of the Golden State Warriors, and in 1996 he passed on Kobe saying, 'I'm not that impressed.' The Warriors took a stiff forward from N.C. State named Todd Fuller.

"Kobe fell to Charlotte, whereupon the Hornets, working at Kobe's behest, traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac and stuff. Can you image, Kobe playing 2 guard on the same team with Baron Davis now? I mean, Fisher is OK, but ... can you imagine it? It would be like Jordan and Pippen, only quicker.

"In crunch time, you wouldn't even be able to get the ball below the free-throw line. Wouldn't be able to get into your offense, just like when Jordan moved to 1 and Pippen to 2, defensively speaking, and the Bulls picked you up three-quarter court and the game was over, basically."

The pure talent
Road Dog: "Mistake most people make is they don't know what talent is all about. If you just talkin' about who can jump, who can move lateral, hold a spot, D up, who can play any position on the floor if he had to, whose hands make the ball a weapon, who can show ball one way, and you have to give, then go the other way, whose hands dictated game, that's all Money. Just one of them dudes built perfect for what he had to do.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe certainly has the physical skills. Now, he must take his mental game to MJ's level.
"And we ain't even begun to speak of the mental edge, the intimidation. That separated Money from the rest, especially toward the end. Ask ... I don't know, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods. Dudes like that and Money -- they had 'em beat when they walked out there, when they looked at 'em a certain way. I don't remember ever seeing Money do anything wrong on the court. Not that he didn't, but he was so steady, so stunning in his game, so smooth, so correct in his s---, that I don't remember him doing it. Even at 22."

R-Dub: "And yet, looking at Kobe now, at 22, looking at him not only beating a shorter, quicker man off the dribble, and only two dribbles at that, two dribbles from the deep corner, or the high wing, and he's in the lane and through, like a winged snake, then hits the switch and vroom,.to the moon, June, unking on the cream of the crop, The Twin Towers, former NBA champions the Admiral and Tim Be Dunkin' ... same incredible lift on the jumper as Mike.

"And it's just as automatic now. Deep range growing. His j can be grabbed, blocked. Seen T-Mac grab it. So the difference now is, where Kobe is, he's got company. Mike didn't have company. But still, Kobe can go right over top of you. He's 6-8, legit, stocking feet, has flexibility, another one of Jordan's characteristic advantages, only he was shorter, 6-6. Like Jordan, Kobe has body control.

"Mentally, well, hard to tell. It's getting to the point where the other players are starting to believe. The Kobe Mind Trick should be soon to follow. Just because he didn't join the silly team huddle in the hallway before games in the regular season, just because he got married ... Mike got married, too ..."

The receding hairlines
Road Dog: "Mike, definitely. Went to the shaved head look, which not all the brothers and damned few of the white dudes can bring off. Jordan's bald dome was cool. He made it cool. And that bald head, tilted just slightly down, with them cold-blooded narrowing brown eyes gleaming like some kinda bird a prey -- he chilled your s--- facing up on you. Money's head became universally recognizable, even in cigarette."

Michael Jordan
When his hair started to go, MJ decided to just keep it real.
R-Dub: "You mean 'silhouette,' Dog."

Road Dog: "Yeah, whatever ... don't try to change the subject."

R-Dub: "Kobe does kind of have one of those kind of pecan heads that might not do the bald well, but maybe later, after good living and marriage fills in his face a bit. At 22, Mike was still advertising pomades for Johnson Products, the Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen people in Chicago, wasn't he? Still had a little yarmulke cap of hair going on then. Certainly, he didn't go for a bush. Kobe has gone for the bush, a 'Fro, a Natural."

Road Dog: "More like a TWA -- teeny weeny Afro ..."

R-Dub: "... which gives him a Einsteinian look, Einstein as a Philly-by-way-of-Italy hooper of Afram descent. His head isn't recognizable in silhouette. His shoe manufacturer tried it. The Answer? Not."

The shoes
Road Dog: "Can't compare. A comparison can't be made. Air Jordans were the newest-latest-sweetest-bombest-baddest hook-ups since Chuck Taylor All-Stars, only it was Chuck Taylor All Stars to the 10th power. Even today, even old styles, like that black patent leather toe hole and sole number, become classics and the youngest generation of people have adopted them and -- ta-dah! -- always Jordan is the vogue s--- ..."

Michael Jordan
There's no debate: The Air Jordan is the best basketball shoe ever.
R-Dub: "Hold up, Dog ... don't be cursing up in my spot, man. Why you blowing up my spot?"

Road Dog: "My bad. But people do say the Air Jordan is the greatest basketball shoe ever made."

R-Dub: "Well, they're the greatest basketball shoe concept ever, that's for sure. It's definitely the greatest from Phil Knight's point of view. I like the shoe, I wear it. I have a Nike-shaped foot, I guess. Some people have Adidas feet, I guess. But I don't know about all them kids who got beat up for their Air Jordans early on, or about the parents who were trying to fork over a buck-fifty for some casual shoes.

"Kobe didn't have Spike Lee in his Mars Blackmon persona to help market shoes. Kobe's best commercial, the Secret Agent No 8 thing, is for a basketball. I tried Kobe's "new" Adidases. I like the color, silver, but mind the high fashion clunky robot appearance -- fine, for a Spacewalk to Milan.

"Jordan had his first Air Jordans banned by the league; looked like somebody gave his old Keds a swirly in strawberry Kool-Aid."

Most eye-opening playoff game
Road Dog: "Money dropped 63 on the Boston Celtics. Toasted 'em. At Boston Garden. NBA playoff record. That was when Larry Bird called him, 'God, disguised as Michael Jordan.' End of story."

R-Dub: "Kobe dropped 48 on the Sacto Kings, with 16 rebounds, then he hit the Spurs' Twin Towers for 45 in his very next game -- took it and jammed it down their Twin-Towered throats. Antonio Daniels is a fine athlete; put him on Kobe, it was like he wasn't there.

Kobe Bryant
The jury is still out on whether Kobe Bryant will finish his career in LA.
"Didn't the Bulls lose Mike's 63-point game?"

The Shaq factor
Road Dog: "Money never had the advantage of playing with a force like Shaq Fu. Talkin' 'bout can you imagine Kobe and Baron Davis. Can you imagine Money, and Shaq, and Scottie! Shut down the league."

R-Dub: "Well, the Jordan Bulls shut down the league anyway, without Shaq. The question is, would Jordan have been able to defer to Shaq, even in the slightest, as Kobe has done? Can you say for sure, Dog, any of you, that it's certain Shaq and Mike would've gotten along? Can you say, that if you were Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, if you had that kind of ability, the ability Kobe Bryant has, Jordanesque ability, that you would not want to be the go-to man, that you would not want it to be your club, featuring your talents?

"No, you cannot. Not without lying.

"The Lakers won't be publicly Kobe's team as long as Shaq's there -- not unless Shaq defers to Kobe. It would have been interesting to see how Jordan would have fared if he played with -- not with somebody like Shaq, there is nobody like Shaq -- but if he had just played with Shaq, instead of Bill Cartwright and Co. Yes, Jordan did it with a young Pippen and a supporting cast, working the game from outside in. Kobe is doing it with Shaq, and a supporting cast, working the game from inside out, in a more traditional sense.

Shaqkobe
Could MJ have co-existed with Shaq any better than Kobe?
"Shaq said it after the first win against the Spurs, when Kobe made his 45-point 10-board statement. 'I think Kobe is the best player in the league,' Shaq said. Some wise-cracking wag in the attending media audience laughed, and a couple of others began to follow, waiting to be led into more hearty laughter by Shaq's smile. Only Shaq didn't smile. 'I'm serious,' he said. 'He's the best player in the league.'

The bottom line
R-Dub: "Whether or not Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan at a similar stage of development, we now leave that question open to you. Cast your votes as brickbats, slung at the offices of the Page 2 Wrecking Crew. Demand face time with Dr. Jack, Fred Carter, David Aldridge, Jason Jackson, Ric Bucher, anyone loosely affiliated with ESPN.com.

"Tell them your feelings. Is it Kobe? Or is it Michael Jordan? Who wins history?

"There. That ought to keep them all busy enough. Let's roll, Dogster."

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."