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In the shadow of greatness

"Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game. His obsession with Michael was striking. Not only had he mastered many of Jordan's moves, but he affected many of M.J.'s mannerisms as well.

"When we played in Chicago that season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfish teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, 'You know I can kick your ass one-on-one.'" -- Phil Jackson in his 2013 book, "Eleven Rings"

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Phil Jackson has won 11 championship rings as an NBA head coach. Six with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Five with Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers.

Of the 1,973 games Jackson has presided over from his high chair, only 157 came without either Jordan or Bryant on the roster.

He is also the only person to have served as head coach for both players, at any level, which makes him an almost unquestionable authority on one of the most popular comparisons in all of sports, and all of sports history.

But Bryant disputes this claim from Jackson. All of it.

"Nah, it's a myth," Bryant said. "Phil likes to say things a lot of times to create good content, to create good stories, as most [reporters] do."

Bryant is nine points shy of passing Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list, where Jordan sits in third place (32,292 points), behind Karl Malone (36,298) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).

It's no small achievement, even if Bryant claims otherwise.

"It's really not a big deal to say I passed him for something like that," Bryant said. "It's a great accomplishment, but the true beauty is in the journey."

The truth, the whole truth, is even though every step in his career has been measured against Jordan, no one has measured those steps more than Bryant.

"Knowing Kobe the way I do, I know that's the one guy he wants to surpass in so many categories," said Lakers head coach Byron Scott, who played alongside Bryant during Bryant's rookie season. "That's the thing that drives him."

Even though Bryant has long focused on his legacy, he has also known he needed to forge one large enough to escape Jordan's shadow, to make a name for himself.

"Well, I have," Bryant said.

Yes, after time and much success, Bryant emerged from the shadow that he lived in almost since the day his NBA career began.

"I wanted eventually to be one of the best players in the league," Bryant said not long after entering the league, according to the book "The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers." "I just didn't know that other people would urge me to be that right away. Everybody was expecting me to be the next Michael."

Bryant was the first superstar to grow up with Jordan as the mold for what an NBA superstar was. In many ways, Bryant reaped the benefits (voracious fans, shoe deals, etc.). In many ways, he perverted the ideal (shot selection, particularly in light of statistical advancement).

"Without what Michael did," said Nuggets coach Brian Shaw, a former player and assistant coach for Bryant's Lakers, "Kobe wouldn't have anything to shoot for."

Every achievement brought him closer to equal footing with Jordan, but none mattered more, of course, than championships.

"Growing up looking at Magic and Russell and Michael and his run, it was all measured by that," Bryant said. "It wasn't about one championship or two. It was about, you've got to win five, you've got to win six. That was the standard."

He obsesses about titles, to the point that it has become something of a running joke (one Bryant now seems to be in on; he wore a shirt that read "RINGSSSSS" at a practice in late September). Championships are the bottom line, the trump card in the many scores Bryant, much like Jordan, feels he has to settle.

Following a Game 7 Finals win over the Boston Celtics, Bryant was asked what his fifth ring meant to him.

"Just got one more than Shaq," Bryant said. "You can take that to the bank. You know how I am: I don't forget anything."

Leading up to that Finals win, he constantly downplayed the matchup against the Celtics, who had beaten the Lakers in the 2008 Finals by embarrassing them in a 39-point Game 6 loss on the parquet in Boston.

Then after the Lakers won?

"I was just lying to you guys," Bryant told reporters. "When you're in the moment, you have to suppress that because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don't really play your best basketball. But I mean, you guys know what a student I am of the game. ... It meant the world to me."

So does winning not just more rings, but more rings than Jordan.

"That has been driving him for years," Scott said, "because he knows that if he gets to the sixth or the seventh championship, you've got to consider him one of the greatest if not the greatest that's ever played."

This season, Bryant disputed the notion that his high-volume shooting was him gunning after Jordan's scoring mark. All a myth, Bryant said.

"But the reality is, I've always taken pride in the building of my game," Bryant said. "If I really paid attention to numbers, if I really was hell-bent on passing records, I would've gone to college and come to the pros and been ready to play and put up big numbers then and not sit on the bench for three years [during] my first years in the league."

Another myth. Bryant put up more numbers by going directly to the NBA than he would've by going to college. It gave him a three-year head start toward the records.

Jordan was in his 13th season, his last with the Chicago Bulls, and was nine days shy of his 35th birthday when he took the floor at Madison Square Garden for the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. It was seen then as his final All-Star appearance, and he had a touch of the flu.

Then there was Bryant, in his second season with the Lakers and, at 19 years old, the youngest All-Star in NBA history.

"[Jordan] scored the first points of the game," Serena Roberts wrote in The New York Times. "Then he took Bryant's dunk and raised him a dunk with a couple of fall-away jumpers."

"He hit those two turnarounds,'' Bryant said then. ''And I was like, 'Cool, let's get it on.'"

Jordan said of Bryant, "'He came at me pretty early. I would if I was him. If I see someone that's maybe sick or whatever, you've got to attack him. He attacked. You know, I liked his attitude.''

Jordan won All-Star MVP with 23 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Bryant had 18 points, six rebounds and one assist. The East beat the West 135-114.

In total, there were 11 in-game encounters between the two in their careers -- eight during the regular season and three All-Star Games. Bryant always savored them.

"When I first came into the league, Michael was terrifying to everybody," he said. "Everybody was really afraid of the guy. Like really, deathly afraid of him. I never really understood that, and I was the one that was willing to challenge and learn from him and wasn't afraid to call him and ask him questions. He was really open and spoke to me a lot and helped me a lot."

During their first matchup, in December 1996, they talked about post moves, fadeaway jumpers and more, Bryant said.

"Listen, man, sometimes you get some players that are cut from the same cloth," Bryant said. "Even at 17 years old, I was not afraid of anybody. He and I are very similar that way. We'll challenge anybody. We're a rare breed in that regard."

Scott thinks so.

"Jordan, back in the day, they said he was a tough guy to play with because he was so demanding," Scott said. "He was punching guys in practice and things of that sort. And Kobe is in that same cloth."

Just ask Smush Parker, who once said Bryant told him in practice, "You can't talk to me. You need more accolades under your belt before you come talk to me."

Both viewed intimidation as a motivational tactic. On Thursday, Bryant might as well have been echoing Jordan when he told his teammates at practice, "You m-----f------ are soft like Charmin in this m-----f-----. God damn, is this the type of s--- that's going on in these practices? Now I see why we've lost 20 f---ing games. We're soft like Charmin. We're soft like s---."

But for as much as they're alike, Bryant has been irked by the notion that his game is a carbon copy of Jordan's.

When asked when he first started studying Jordan, Bryant doesn't give a date. Instead, he said, "I studied everybody. Everybody. Absolutely everybody."

He mentioned Jordan, sure, but also Oscar Robertson and Bob Pettit and Walt Frazier and George Mikan and even Scott.

"I watched them all, man," Bryant said.

Jordan once said that Bryant "steals all my moves." Others have noted the similarities as well.

"Like a young Jordan, Bryant always considered himself the best opportunity for his team to score," Roland Lazenby wrote in "The Show." "The Lakers staff considered it a habit that needed breaking. Bryant, however, saw it as much more than a habit. He saw it as the essence of who he was as a basketball player, and that is why he vowed, 'I will not let them break me.'"

Ex-Lakers defensive ace Michael Cooper remembers guarding Bryant during his pre-draft workout in Inglewood, back when Bryant was 17. Even then, Cooper noticed the similarities.

"Just the fallaway shot, where he's able to back down into the post and then turn and kick out his leg and shoot that fall-away jumper," Cooper said. "It's no secret that Kobe patterned his game after Jordan. Kobe is definitely a shadow of Michael Jordan."

In response to Jordan's claim of on-court identity theft, Bryant replied on Twitter, "Domino effect. I stole some of his ... this generation stole some of mine."

"He lived for taking that torch and carrying it on the way that MJ did," Scott said. "And I think Kobe, he wanted to take it on even better because when he leaves, it's almost like there's nobody here to leave it here for."

Indeed, no obvious successor exists.

"Somebody will just step up and take it," Bryant said. "That's what I did."

Jackson compared Bryant and Jordan at length in his most recent book and noted numerous differences: Jordan was a better leader, a tougher and more intimidating defender and didn't overplay his hand, unlike Bryant.

But even the arbiter must concede.

"Even Jordan has said that Kobe is the only player who can be compared to him," Jackson wrote, "and I have to agree."