Monday, October 29, 2001 Updated: November 2, 1:20 AM ET
Kobe, Hill deal with being the next Michael
By Marc Stein Special to ESPN.com
He'd be a lock for Comeback Player of the Year, if the NBA had such a thing,
and just as big a cinch for the Irony Award.
Dallas' Finley has been compared to MJ, but he laughs it off.
If the NBA had such a thing.
And the league should have both, really, with Michael Jordan coming back to
the sport he left three seasons ago. With His Floorness -- if that's how
we're supposed to address him now -- headed feet first into a very thick
batch of irony.
How else to describe everyone, everywhere, expecting the 38-year-old Michael
Jordan to be the next Michael Jordan, starting Tuesday night at MSG.
Now, no one here dares suggest that Mike has no shot. On looks alone he
might be able to pull it off. But no matter what happens, you can bet
there's a string of studs out there simply happy that someone else has to
shoulder the Next Jordan burden for a season or two.
Trying to live up to the label certainly hasn't been a ton of fun for Kobe
Bryant ... and Vince Carter ... and Ray Allen ... and Grant Hill ... and
Jerry Stackhouse ... and Penny Hardaway ... and Michael Finley.
Most definitely not fun for the non-studs in the club, like Harold Miner and
"If you look at what he's done in the game, for anybody to be compared to
him, it's just a joke," says the Mavericks' Finley, straight-faced serious.
Finley heard Next Jordan chatter for the first time in the early-1990s, as a
Chicago kid at the University of Wisconsin. Let's just say Badgers fans got
a little carried away with one of their own actually levitating at rim
level. "They weren't used to seeing the kinds of things I was doing, some of
the dunks," Finley recalled, finally flashing a grin.
Thing is, the laughing stops when you get to the NBA and people are bringing
up those expectations every day. Carter, for one, has consistently bristled
at the mere mention of his fellow Tar Heel, up to and including last week's
exhibition showdown and the 26-point half he hung on Jordan's Wizards.
Surely you heard how Carter and Jordan scarcely made eye contact until
"Not a word" was exchanged between them, Carter confirmed.
Even the unflappable Bryant, who has come closer than anyone to gracing
Jordan's airspace, has admitted that talk of carrying on the MJ legacy
"bothers me somewhat."
That was one of several reluctance-tinged comments from Bryant after Game 1
of the Western Conference Finals last May, when he pumped in 45 points in
LA's first of four straight dustings of San Antonio. Media vultures
surrounded Kid Kobe on a baseline in the Alamodome, barraged him with Next
Jordan questions for a whole off day and didn't stop to listen to his
"I'm not Michael Jordan," Bryant insisted. "There will never be another
Michael Jordan. I'm my own player. I want to be identified as my own
A few years back, of course, you could have heard the same futile pleas from
Hill. That was three or four Next Jordans ago, in Detroit, before a series
of playoff failures and ongoing ankle trouble led Hill to accept a secondary
role in Orlando alongside Tracy McGrady, one of the newer card-carrying
members of Club Next.
Not that Hill seems to mind (at all) that he's no longer mentioned in the MJ
debates. He's quite content to focus on finding his health and letting
Jordan himself deal with the demanding prospect of trying to be Jordanesque.
"Too much for one man," Hill has said in the past, when it was he at the
forefront of the focus. Asked again about Jordan again recently, Hill looked
pleased to delete himself from the conversation.
"Whether you're Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Allen Iverson or Tracy
McGrady, all you can do is try to be the best player you can be and not
really think about [the comparisons]," Hill said. "It's more a fascination
of the media. And barber shops."
Cheers, Grant, for not putting all the blame on us. Rightly so, too, since
it wasn't a pressman or a hair-care technician who responded to Bryant's
45-pointer against the Spurs by saying: "No. 23 had a great game." Or by
gushing: "He's the closest thing to MJ I've ever seen. Of course, MJ didn't
have a Shaq to play with him, which actually makes what Kobe did even more
The first quote came from Horace Grant, then a Lakers teammate of Bryant.
The second came from Steve Kerr, then with San Antonio. Both are former
Jordan teammates who know Jordanesque when they see it.
The actual Mr. Jordan, according to his close pal Finley, "probably laughs
inside" when he hears Next Jordan babble but "doesn't talk about it" with
others. We'll see. Floor Jordan, as John Thompson has dubbed him, knows
he'll be compared to His Airness of old on a daily basis and will
undoubtedly be asked repeatedly to discuss the irony of it all.
Yup. If anyone is going to be compared to No. 23 this season, it's No. 23.
The First Jordan. Figure it won't be Kobe's problem again until the playoffs
start in April, when the Wizards are retired annually.
Safe to say His Floorness will cope better than Miner, the infamous "Baby
Jordan" who barely lasted four seasons in the league and who, at last
report, was said to be living in the desert seclusion of Las Vegas. Then
again, if you endorse the quip Dallas' Don Nelson has been trotting out
lately, Jordan's plight is more ironical than we thought.
"Who knows?" Nellie says. "If Michael plays his cards right, he might even
be the next Kobe Bryant."
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com.