Born in 1985, I was a little bit too young, and a little bit too immature, to really appreciate Michael Jordan during his heyday. In fact, as Jordan was barreling toward his second three-peat, I specifically remember rooting against him for no other reason than I was sick of him. I was sick of him winning every year, of monopolizing the proceedings. I equated Jordan to a bully.
I would later develop a regret complex over this unenlightened attitude.
It’s not like Jordan was universally revered back then and I comprised the entire contingent of the Anti-Jordan Coalition. Indeed, he was regarded by many as a prick (he once punched a teammate in practice); he had a well-documented gambling streak (Google it); he reportedly cheated on his wife. Not all of his qualities were endearing, and not everyone liked him.
But once I grew to really understand the kind of things that Jordan did on a basketball court, and the way in which he did them, I became, after the fact, a huge Jordan fan. Once I realized, for instance, that Jordan netted 37.1 points per game as a third-year pro – when he was 23 years-old – I became a Jordan fan. Once I realized that, two years later, Jordan averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.9 steals and shot nearly 54 percent from the floor, I became a Jordan fan. Once I realized that, en route to his first tile, Jordan’s Bulls didn’t just beat, but mercilessly swept their long-time nemesis Detroit Pistons – pounding them by 21 points on the road in the deciding Game 4 (Jordan had 29 points on 17 attempts) and prompting the Pistons to famously mope off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands – I became a Jordan fan. Once I realized that, prior to the 1992 NBA Finals, the media were concocting a “Who is better – Jordan or Clyde Drexler?” storyline, and then Jordan went out and scored more than 35 points per game (including the shoulder-shrugging three-point exhibition in Game 1), I became a Jordan fan. Once I realized that Jordan scored 55 points at Madison Square Garden within five games of returning from his 21-month baseball hiatus, I became a Jordan fan. Once I wrapped my head around the absurdity of the Flu Game, or understood that, during the final two years of the second three-peat, the Bulls didn’t really have the best team in the league (or even the Eastern Conference), yet still won championships, I became a Jordan fan.
If you’re a basketball fan, it’s hard not to be a Jordan fan. I’ve always been the former; it was a matter of time before I became the latter, too.
(David Halberstam’s bio on Jordan called Playing For Keeps, which I read over here, turned my affinity for Jordan into a downright reverence. It’s an insanely detailed book, and worth a read if you care at all about Jordan. Web sites like IsoHunt and BTJunkie also helped my Jordan love flourish. Those sites house downloadable files of some epic Jordan games. I don’t know if they’re available in America, seeing as they epitomize copyright infringement. But they have been immensely fun for me in China. I’ve been able to relive Jordan’s 63 points as a second-year pro in Boston, the Flu Game, the 45-point clincher in the second finals win over the Jazz…it’s all online.)
It took a while, but I came around on Jordan. It’s just a shame that I was too young when it was happening live to really appreciate the phenomenon unfolding was going on. That this good-looking guy had become a basketball god and marketing gold mine in a way that has never been done before. It was unreal. I was just too young to realize it. And so was China.
That’s why I’m convinced that Kobe Bryant is China’s Michael Jordan. Now, I refuse to get into the “Is Kobe Bryant the next Michael Jordan?” debate. To ask if anyone is the next Michael Jordan is a silly, fabricated question concocted by ESPN to give Michael Wilbon something to talk about. It’s just a stupid thing to ask, for no other reason than the environment in which Jordan played was so vastly different than the environment in which Kobe plays. Indeed, Jordan helped create the environment in which Kobe plays, what with the media frenzy and marketing opportunities and the expectation that a basketball player do much, much more than simply play basketball. Asking “Is so-and-so the next Jordan?” is like asking “Is so-and-so the next Seinfeld?” There will never be a next Seinfeld – just like there will never be a next Jordan – because Seinfeld changed the medium in which existed for every ensuing show in the history; it forever changed what it means to be a television comedy. Just like Jordan changed what it means to be a star basketball player.
So, that’s not what I mean when I say Kobe Bryant is China’s Michael Jordan. What I mean is that, just as I was too young and immature to appreciate Jordan when he was Jordan, so, too, was China’s basketball community. Just think about the timelines of (a) Jordan and his insane career, (b) basketball’s burgeoning popularity in China, and (c) Kobe Bryant’s ascension into the upper stratosphere of basketball greats. (Just how high Bryant ascends of course depends on how this and the next three NBA Finals transpire. In Game 5 in Boston, Kobe was breathtaking, scoring 23 straight points for L.A. and hitting a different-area-code three-pointer that inspired the Celtics’ Paul Pierce to say, “I would say it was the toughest shot that I’ve ever seen somebody hit while I was on the court.” Of course, the Lakers still lost. Game 7 looms…)
When it comes to the evolution of China’s infatuation with the NBA, 2002 was a watershed year. Yao Ming was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in 2002, and it’s easy to argue that that’s really when basketball became huge in China. Sure, people were already playing basketball in China before that. In fact, as I noted in this blog’s infancy, China has been playing basketball as long as any nation outside of North America, and professional basketball in China dates back to 1956. Plus, it’s not like Yao Ming was just born an awesome basketball player; the basketball tools were in place in China to turn him into a talent worthy of being the No. 1 overall pick. After all, being a gigantic foreigner doesn’t automatically make you the No. 1 overall pick. Just ask Manute Bol, a 7-foot-7 Sudanese player who wasn’t drafted until the second round back in 1985. And his rather nondescript pro career – the highlight of which was a lone nomination to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team – is a testament to the fact that being a behemoth doesn’t mean everything. Indeed, Yao evolved into a quality player (and not just a giant), and that evolution took place in China (before 2002).
Still, 2002 was a landmark. Never before had China paid so much attention to basketball or the NBA, because never before had the nation produced such a superstar. The seeds were laid on China for the explosion of basketball’s popularity, and Yao represented the budding of that popularity.
Meanwhile, back in America, the seeds were being laid for Kobe’s popularity. Kobe averaged 25.2 points per game in 2001-02 to go along with 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.5 steals – and this was coming off of a season during which he averaged 28.5. Kobe could always jump through the roof; he did, after all, win the Slam Dunk contest as a 19-year-old rookie. But he also weighed about 120 pounds then. In 2002, however, he still had those youthful hops, which were now coupled with a grown man’s body. In other words, he had a lot of Jordan in him – long, lean, strong with extraterrestrial jumping ability. Indeed, 2002 is when Kobe’s star started to shine like never before. Jordan, on the other hand, was in the throes of his career, playing for the Washington Wizards in the awkward denouement of his career. His stats were still good – 22.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists – but he was shooting 41.6 percent from the floor and averaging 22.1 shots per game to get those 22.5 points. And, more to the point, he wasn’t JORDAN anymore. He was a shot-a-lot guard who, while still productive, was but a shell of his former self. It’s hard to gripe about 22.5/5.7/5.2, but when you recall what Jordan was before he went to Washington, it just wasn’t the same.
It wasn’t just Kobe’s stats that were good in 2002. He also won his third straight title. So, a month before Yao Ming was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick, Kobe Bryant was the most accessible star in the league. He was a champion, he was fluid and graceful, he was good-looking, he did things that no one else was doing, he was a lot like Jordan was. That’s not to say he is the next Jordan, or that he’s as good as Jordan. But the dunking and shooting and leaping and looks: he had some Jordan in him, even as a 23-year-old.
That 2002 title would be the last championship that Kobe would win for several years, but it certainly wasn’t the climax of his career (or his off-court antics). And everything he did now that Yao was in the league would be heeded by the biggest basketball community on earth.
In 2002-03, Kobe averaged an even 30 points per game (to go with 6.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.2 steals) before losing to San Antonio in the playoffs. After that season, Kobe was charged with sexual assault for his, uh, encounter with a 19-year-old Colorado woman. While this tainted Kobe’s image in many people’s eyes, I for one* am sure that it turned Kobe into an even more iconic figure here than if it hadn’t happened. The Chinese, after all, have been known to have a mistress or two, so that Kobe was a superhuman basketball player and a lecher made him that much cooler.
* Really, that post and this one are sister posts. If you are at all interested in Kobe Bryant's popularity in China (and the impact that his infidelity had on his popularity in China), check out that post as well.
With his image as a bad boy now solidified, Kobe cruised along for the next couple seasons and then, in 2005-06, took it to a whole new level. That season he averaged 35.4 points per game, then most since Jordan average 37.1 back in 1987. It was also that season when Kobe had an astonishing 81 points in a single game. Kobe won the scoring title again the next season, averaging a cool 31.6 point to go with 5.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists. (Kobe sometimes takes flak for not being well-rounded, but the stats suggest an incredible all-around player. Since he turned 21, Kobe has averaged at least 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 10 of 11 seasons. I know he can be selfish, and I know that LeBron laughs at 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists – King James averaged 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists last season – but 5.2 and 4.9 are good peripheral stats.)
The next season, 2008, Kobe made it back to the Finals, where his team lost to the Boston Celtics. In 2009, the Lakers won it all – Kobe’s fourth ring – and now they’re battling to do it again.
Basically, since basketball became a true phenomenon in China – since, that is, Yao Ming became such a big deal 2002 – Kobe Bryant has been the best player for the longest period. Starting in 2002, Kobe has won two titles – maybe three, depending on how this Boston series transpires – and has been to three more finals. He has won the scoring title twice, scored 81 points, plus he had the most famous NBA-related affair of at least the last decade.
If Kobe had this exact same résumé, but started it 10 years earlier – say, in 1992 – then he would never have achieved such popularity here because his greatest exploits would have fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes in China. Which is what appears to have happened to Jordan. It’s impossible to quantify exactly what Jordan means to Chinese basketball fans. But I can tell you, based on jersey sales and rhetoric and so on, that he is no Kobe. Even though he’s better than Kobe.
Maybe someday the Chinese, like I, will realize that Jordan is actually the greatest. But it hasn’t happened yet.