Today at BBALLBREAKDOWN, we are honoured to present the following from esteemed sportswriter, Roland Lazenby. As the author of both “Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant” and “Michael Jordan, The Life”, Lazenby enjoys a unique perspective on the careers on both players, and today, special to BBALLBREAKDOWN, he speaks on Bryant this week passing Jordan’s career scoring total.
Somebody had to take the challenge.
Somebody had to step up.
That’s what I take away from it all.
Of the millions and millions of young ballers across the globe who wanted to Be Like Mike back in the 1990s, there was only one who was up to the task, only one who even got close.
It all started two decades ago, when Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball shoe magnate, started working with the next great young star. Vaccaro was the guy who got the big idea to put Nikes on Jordan’s feet his first year in the league. The NBA banned Air Jordans because they were red and black, not white. Overnight, the world of kicks exploded.
A decade later Vaccaro started working with a teen-aged Kobe Bryant and soon noticed that Bryant was taking on the mannerisms of Jordan, right down to facial expressions and speech patterns. Vaccaro and Bryant were riding in a car in early 1996 when it dawned on Vaccaro that the teen beside him was taking the Jordan thing down to exact detail, shaved head and all.
Years earlier, in 1984, Vaccaro had launched the idea that a young Jordan could be the kind of mesmerizing figure that Nike could build a shoe empire around. So he was no casual observer. He had spent many hours with Jordan over the star’s first seven years in the league.
As they rode along, Vaccaro mentioned Jordan to Bryant. “He told me,” Vaccaro recalled, “’I’m going to be better than he is.’”
The comment gave Vaccaro reason for pause. At the time, a renewed Jordan was simply eviscerating the rest of the NBA while leading his Chicago Bulls team to an all-time best 72-10 record. Although it seems impossible, Bryant was even more confident than Jordan was as a young player set to enter pro basketball, Vaccaro said.
That spring of 1996, Bryant entered the NBA draft at 17. Vaccaro and Arn Tellem, Bryant’s agent at the time, began working to force a trade between the Charlotte Hornets, the team that drafted Bryant 13th overall in the first round, and the Los Angeles Lakers. “If that trade hadn’t happened, it would not have changed his greatness,” Vaccaro offered. “But it would have changed his ability to win championships.” Otherwise, Bryant could have ended up like Charles Barkley, a great player who never won a title, Vaccaro said in an August interview.
Eighteen years later, Bryant’s dogged pursuit of Jordan has come to this: He just moved ahead of Jordan into third place on the all-time scoring list.
Yeah, Bryant sort of does things like Jordan, but what they really share is an iron will like no other.
“That motherfucker has an iron will,” longtime Chicago Bulls PR man Tim Hallam once said of Jordan.
The NBA has known some tough guys, but none of them had Jordan’s iron will.
Except for Kobe.
I sat down with MJ in 2008 and talked about Kobe. The respect His Airness had for Kobe was obvious. He was the only one to have done the work, Jordan told me.
The only one with that iron will. Night after night.
“I’m going to be better than he is.”
Hall of Famer Tex Winter coached Jordan longer than any man.
Winter often wondered how Jordan would have dealt with having Shaquille O’Neal as a teammate as a young player as Kobe did. Shaq was a great gift from the basketball gods for Kobe. They teamed to win three straight championship rings as Lakers. But Shaq sat in the lane, which prevented Bryant from using his post-up game, the one he had lifted from Jordan. Shaq prevented Kobe from being like Mike. Shaq’s presence made Kobe rebellious because Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Lakers favored Shaq, and rightfully so.
Would a young Jordan have rebelled the same way? Winter said the biggest difference between Jordan and Bryant was that Jordan played three years at UNC in Dean Smith’s tightly controlled system that allowed absolutely no showboat dunks, no displays of atheticism. Jordan minded his manners for Coach Smith, although he too found ways to rebel behind the scenes.
Bryant has returned to the NBA after missing many months, first with heel surgery and then with a broken knee. He did so with his five championship rings in tow as well as a tractor-trailer load of questions about his ability to pull it off at age 36 with years of wear and tear on his wheels.
It hasn’t been real pretty, but amazingly, Bryant has managed to lead the league in scoring despite his age and declining athleticism.
The questions, of course, mostly belong to other people. Bryant won’t entertain any himself. Sir Charles Barkley, the TV analyst, predicted Bryant and the Lakers won’t even make the playoffs in 2015, and that seems accurate as we approach the halfway mark of the season.
Bryant, however, moves forward with his diamond hard confidence fully intact.
That impenetrable, unshakeable self-belief is the one Bryant trait that clearly outranks his contemporaries, says psychologist George Mumford, who has worked extensively with Jordan and Bryant. “It puts him in his own category.” It has guided Bryant through his early struggles as a teen-ager in the NBA, through his battles with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, through rape charges in 2003, through his conflicts with his parents and even a lawsuit against his mother to stop the auction of jerseys and other primo memorabilia from his playing career, and now through his battle back from serious injury. It has been the backbone of his 81-point game, of his many game-winning shots, of his MVP performances, of his total lack on conscience on a given night.
It remains in place because Bryant virtually excludes any challenge to it, says psychologist Mumford. “He won’t allow himself to deal with any contrary view.” It’s largely the reason that Bryant made a regular practice over his career of playing through the sort of pain that put others on the injured list, Mumford said.
Such confidence has often led to charges of arrogance. For both Bryant and Jordan. “You have to be somewhat narcissistic to be as good as those guys are,” Mumford said frankly. It’s why Jackson frequently referred to Jordan and Bryant as alpha males.
When he was a teen-ager in the NBA, mired in loneliness, alienated from his older teammates, somewhat lost in the lack of direction from his coach, Bryant confided that he was going to find a way to break through to greatness, he just didn’t know how.
“I just want to be the man,” he said.
That intense desire to dominate presented almost a mirror image to Jordan’s own immense will and drive. The instrument for both of their desires for domination would be the coaching mind of Phil Jackson.
But there was one big difference.
“Michael was more respectful,” Mumford offered, hinting at the intense complexity of the varying relationships Jackson had with his star Alpha males. Jordan had played those three years at UNC under control freak Dean Smith. Jordan was ready for Jackson’s triangle offense. Plus, Jordan had already played seven seasons in the league and had established himself as its dominant player, what Bryant called “the man.” Jackson immediately sought to build a close relationship with Jordan, meeting with him often, discussing an array of things beyond basketball.
Bryant, on the other hand, was still fighting to establish himself in the NBA when Jackson came to the Lakers in the fall of 1999.
Jackson kept Kobe at arm’s length, declining to form any deep relationship or even to hold any kind of meaningful discussion with Bryant. Instead, Jackson focused on Shaq and sought to build the team hierarchy from the center down.
That led not just to three championships but also immense turbulence, resulting in Jackson getting fired in 2005 and O’Neal leaving the Lakers that same offseason. Jackson later wrote the book “The Last Season” in which he labeled Bryant as “un-coachable.” But the coach returned to the Lakers a season later and promptly softened his approach with Bryant, who by then was clearly the top dog in Los Angeles. They went on to make three more trips to the NBA Finals together and to win two more championships.
In all that time, Bryant remained Jordan-like in his approach except for one key facet. Jordan too struggled with the balancing act of his own immense talent versus the strength of the team. Triangle guru Tim Cone has spent countless thousands of hours studying videotape of Jordan and Bryant as Cone coached his teams in the Philippines to 18 professional titles. Jordan was able to bring great discipline to his movements as a player, Cone said.
The irony for Bryant was that while he displayed incomparable discipline in his preparation to play games, in his film study and conditioning, he was never able to achieve that supreme discipline on the court in his movements as a player.
Tex Winter observed that both Jordan and Bryant routinely gave into their “urges” to play their own game rather than the team game. But it was easier for Jordan to be more disciplined because of his earlier experiences in the team game at North Carolina. Bryant’s entry into pro basketball as an unvarnished teen, combined with his immense focus on his desires, served to work against him many nights, Winter once explained.
It wasn’t that Bryant’s confidence made him totally immune to fact, Vaccaro said. The teen-aged Bryant came to Vaccaro after his first year in the shoe maven’s camp for elite prospects and told him, “I wasn’t the best player in camp this year, but I promise you that next year I will be.” Even then he was establishing a reputation for leaving no chore undone in his effort to be great.
Yet now, even with Bryant’s five championships, Vaccaro looks back and observes that the Lakers star was never accorded the status as the league’s leading figure as Jordan and even LeBron James have enjoyed.
The reason for that is perhaps rooted in Bryant’s “outsider” status and aloofness. He was raised largely in Europe and was largely a different, singular creature on the NBA landscape.
“He is so effin’ bright,” Vaccaro said of the circumstances. “I think his intelligence influenced his acceptance by the other players in the league and by the public.”
Bryant was even booed as the MVP of the All Star Game in his hometown of Philadelphia.
The public disdain could be found everywhere perhaps but Los Angeles, where he was immediately worshipped as “The Kid,” the flashy prize in the eye of late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. He never fell from his place in the owner’s heart, and in recognition of that, the Buss children running the franchise, daughter Jeanie and son Jim, elected to give Bryant a two-year contract extension worth better than $48 million because it’s what their father would have done, just as Dr. Buss gave Magic Johnson a large deal even as his career ended.
The move left many Lakers partisans howling that it had weighed down the franchise’s salary cap room to make moves for the future and no doubt has cut into Bryant’s appreciation among the team’s fans.
Undeterred, Bryant moves on now into his final Jordan irony.
His Royal Airness played for the Washington Wizards two final seasons, limited by bad knees and a weak roster around him. His old friends were amazed that Jordan would take on such a burden when he knew in advance that he had absolutely no chance of winning. Jordan nonetheless proceeded with the idea that he would serve as a teacher for his younger teammates. He too brought in an old friend, his former coach in Chicago, Doug Collins to serve as coach.
Jordan did indeed spend many nights trying to serve as an instructor to his teammates. But his old competitiveness and his legendary harshness also got in the way. Jordan made tens of millions of dollars for the Washington franchise, but the experience ended in the ugliest fashion, with Jordan being fired after alienating many of his teammates and owner Abe Pollin.
Bryant, too, has had his share of harsh moments with teammates, many of them hidden by Lakers practices conducted under the tightest security. In 2007, a visitor to Lakers practice watched Bryant fire a ball into the back of the head of teammate Sasha Vujacic as he was leaving the court. Vujacic turned and cast a wary glance at Bryant and continued his exit.
Bryant, of course, proceeds through this season with a less than stellar cast around him and the best of intentions. He faces perhaps his greatest challenge in seeking to re-establish his game.
Then there’s the confidence and all of that ego and drive he brings to the floor each night.
That mix led to a clouding of Jordan’s judgment in his final two seasons, many observers have said.
Will Bryant be able to heed that example and dial back his own vibe?
The Alpha male climb to the top of the mountain has been a lonely path for Bryant. He’s never known any other way. Can he find one now as he struggles through the end game of his career?
The legendary confidence leads him to purse his lips and say, yes, with that trademark defiance. He should give Jordan a call. They could talk about it. Confidence, after all, has long been a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s just the devil whispering in your ear.
In 1999, Roland Lazenby wrote the book “Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant.” In 2014, Lazenby wrote the biography “Michael Jordan, The Life,” an Editor’s Choice of the New York Times Book Review.