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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.
Michael Finley
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 Ronnie Fields.

"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 game's end.

"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."

Kobe
Kobe

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 protests.

"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 player."

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."

Hill
Hill

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 impressive."

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.