Let’s take a basketball journey through time and understand where we are so that we can absorb Lebron James’ comment properly.
James said that he will eventually be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore by the time his career is over. From a player with just two titles and 3 prior playoff collapses with favored teams (2009-2011), the comment represented a staggering amount of hubris, and a sly understanding that he has the media and its myth making machine in his back pocket. It is the media, in the end, that crafts the perception of the league’s greatest players.
Kobe Bryant’s legacy is vast and still evolving, but ultimately he is misunderstood. The legions of fans of the NBA like to compare stars past and present. Each generation of fans that grew up during a certain player’s era claim that their guy was the best ever. The making of NBA legends isn’t made up of indisputable facts but of embellishments, willful omissions, and statistics devoid of context.
David Stern’s legacy is his laser like focus on the aspects of his product that he could sell. All we remember of the 80’s were the great Lakers and Celtics teams, the early 80’s Sixers and late 80’s Pistons. We don’t remember, however, that the vast majority of the league was mediocre during the decade, because the NBA’s marketing arm focused on Magic and Larry, making them immortal.
Similarly in the 90’s, as Magic and Bird slowed down, the league ushered in unfettered free agency in 1989 while simultaneously adding 6 teams from 1989 to 1996. This diluted the league’s talent base. As a result, Stern focused on Michael Jordan in a way no athlete has been elevated above his sport before or since. The mythology the NBA crafted around its marquee star created an aura of perfect greatness that facts nor critical analysis can pierce. That’s how we get to a world in which Michael Jordan is better than Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
But that ended in 1995.
Kevin Garnett’s entry to the NBA draft felt, by itself, like a curious case of a supreme talent struggling with his test scores and taking a leap to the pros that was at most one year too early. His obvious talent made him worth the 5th overall pick for a small market team needing a draw, but it wasn’t clear this was the beginning of a trend.
It was Kobe Bryant who started the flood of high schoolers to the NBA.
Bryant was the exact type of player the NCAA built itself around just like Michael Jordan and Grant Hill before him. If that type of kid wasn’t going to college, then who would?Being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers raised the level of attention Bryant recieved. The arrival of Shaq to the Lakers at the same time, made them the percieved heir apparent to the Bulls as early as the 1996-97 season.
By his 2nd season, the NBA was placing Bryant as Jordan’s heir before he’d even earned a starting role with the Lakers. It was the only time in the entire history of the league that a bench player was voted a starter in the All Star game.The 1998 All Star Game will always be remembered as Michael vs Kobe. The Best vs. The Future. It so consumed the league, we forget who else was there. Tim Duncan, Detroit era Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Garnett, and Shaq were all afterthoughts. Bryant’s play was spectacular and brash and he dominated the first half, leading all scorers with 18 points.
Getting caught up in the Jordan comparison, Bryant lost sight of the bigger picture that a 19 year old could never see. He upset the veteran players and media types who felt he was given too much attention too soon and that Bryant himself was too self absorbed. His infamous waving off of a Karl Malone pick became an indictment of these “new wave” of players that had entered the league.
A backlash against Bryant solidified in the media and a disdain fueled by jealousy and perceived transgressions developed among his fellow stars. That moment was the moment Bryant became a permanently divisive figure around the league.
It is not a coincidence the NBA has systematically dismantled, over the last decade, the pathways high school players could use to enter the league and the amount of money they could make on their rookie deals. Bryant is the NBA’s last $300 million player.
Bryant would never be Jordan they said. He was selfish they said. He was carried by Shaq they said. Iverson and TMac were better they said. Wade and Lebron were better they said. Duncan was the best of his generation they said. Yet his presence was constant.The media became adversarial to him in a way that negatively affected the perception of his career.
How many MVP’s did he not get because voters personally disliked him? 2003?2006?2007?2009?2010? Bryant making 3rd Team All NBA behind Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, and Ray Allen while averaging 27.6 pts, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in 2004-05?
Kobe Bryant dominated the conversation of the NBA for 15 seasons. The best player in the game conversation was measured against him from 2001 to 2010. His greatest feats were only approachable by Jordan.His teams dominated the 00’s making 7 Finals and winning 5 titles. He was as dominant as Magic, more dominant than Bird, and was elite longer than any guard ever had been, but somehow he is only begrudgingly given top 10 all time status.
Lebron made his comment because he knows he has the full weight of the media and the league’s marketing force is behind him. His play is legendary no doubt, but the totality of his career includes very public failures. Slowly, those dark playoff moments with the Cavs and his first Finals with Heat are being scrubbed from the ledger. The analytics movement is seemingly based on finding new complex ways to appreciate James’ greatness. Not surprisingly, the analytics gurus target Bryant for scorn.
You might not like Bryant, but you can’t deny his record, his accomplishments, his global impact. When the U.S. Olympic Team headed to Beijing, in America, Lebron was the team’s marquee star. Upon arrival in China, it became obvious that the world viewed Kobe as the pre eminent star. He was received in a way only Jordan had experienced previously in Barcelona. It was shocking to witness the dichotomy between the american media narrative and the global media’s interest.
On the court too, the best player argument was decided when Kobe took control of the Gold Medal Game, closing the show with daggers that reminded everyone why Bryant is a 5 time champion and your favorite player is not.
As a society we need to move past a ‘buildup and destroy’ media narrative that elevates some players at the expense of others. There is no best. There is an elite level that maybe 13 players have reached. To pick one over the other is a fool’s errand. Michael, Kareem, Wilt,Magic,Kobe, Russell, Duncan, Bird, Jerry, Oscar, Lebron, Doctor J, and Shaq have earned that perch above the rest.
So Lebron said that they would have to make room on that Mount Rushmore for him. Maybe so King, but know that Kobe Bryant is already there etched in granite.