Last week, I noted my disappointment regarding Michael Jordan's comments about Kobe Bryant's place in basketball history. If you missed it (how did you miss it?), here's what His Airness said:
"I think he is always going to be within the conversations of some of the greatest players who've played by the time he is finished," Jordan began. So far so good. "Where does he rank among those, if you are talking about positions? If you are talking about guards, I would say he has got to be in the top 10."
Based on Jordan's post-career track record, evidenced most spectacularly by a bitter, petty Hall of Fame induction speech, it's reasonable to believe his words were a swipe at the guy almost universally seen as the only backcourt challenger even remotely able to knock down Jordan's flag atop G.O.A.T. Mountain.
Bryant would rather undergo un-anesthetized root canal surgery than engage in M.J. comparisons, but pinned down by Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, he refused to fuel any controversy:
“It’s an accurate statement,” Bryant said. “I’m definitely one of the top 10 guards. It could mean two, it could mean one, it could mean four or five. I’m definitely one of the top thousand. Look, I know how he feels about me... “There have been a lot of great guards to play the game. For me to sit here and say, ‘He should have said top five,’ that’s disrespectful to the other guards that I’ve watched.” When asked whether Jordan’s words were motivating, Bryant said: “That stuff doesn’t get to me. You can’t motivate me or take me to a place that I’m not already at.”
While the Q Ratings people apparently disagree, Kobe no longer represents anything close to the polarizing, "Love me or hate me" figure of a half-decade ago. He's cheered in every arena across the NBA, his jersey is the top seller in Europe, Asia, and beyond. There are probably penguins in Antarctica bobbing around in 24's threads. His redemption, for those inclined to use such language, has been constructed in large part on victories. Three straight trips to the Finals, an MVP, two titles, two Finals MVPs.
But it has also been built on moments like these, where Bryant responds to potential insult with calm and clarity, understanding fully the alternatives do him no good. Maybe he really wasn't stung by Jordan's comments, maybe he was. Perhaps it was somewhere in between. But whether it's Jordan, LeBron James, or anyone else, Kobe won't play the Relative Greatness game*, instead pushing constantly to have his accomplishments viewed on their own terms even while knowing the basketball public won't cooperate. My point isn't that his comments to Spears were disingenuous- regardless of what you think about Kobe's personality, his respect for other greats in basketball history is well established and genuine- but that Bryant fully understands now where and how his battles can be won, and he gains nothing by firing back at Jordan.
Bryant admits he cares more now about what people think of him and how he'll be remembered than earlier in his career. If his handling of JordanGate is any indication, he'll continue pulling more people off the fence and on to his side before he's done.
*Yeah, he'll still engage in periodic, post-Game 7 podium style digs at Shaq, but given how cartoonish some of O'Neal's behavior and comments towards now-plentiful former teams and teammates have become over the years, I'm not sure those should count.