all photos courtesy of Getty Images
“Things are the way they are for a reason.”
That’s one of the last quotes from Kobe Bryant’s presser on Monday after his last road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But what if, for a moment, the basketball world existed in a hypothetical space?
A place where Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Karl Malone all best each other throughout the 1990’s for immortal championship glory? An existence where Kobe Bryant was the guy everyone wanted to “be like?”
There are so many what if’s to consider when you do things like this.
For instance, if there is no Michael Jordan, how does that change sports marketing and the crossover athlete? Does the NBA even go from center to guard-oriented? And a host of other head-spinning questions. For the sake of conversation, lets pretend that everything plays out similar enough historically.
Maybe the Bad Boy era Detroit Pistons win a few more championships and Isaiah Thomas gets that spot on the Dream Team in ’92. Shaq makes his way to the league by 1992 and is an instant All-Star in Orlando. He’d make up the crossover appeal with his infectious personality, so athletes (specifically basketball players) are still the most marketable guys on the planet.
But what affect does MJ’s absence have on young Kobe?
“I think Kobe goes to college and would’ve been a more polished player,” said Roland Lazenby, the author of Mad Game: The Education of Kobe Bryant. “Jordan played at UNC for three years, which allowed him to really embrace the team game. Kobe always struggled with that. Mike did too, but Kobe a little more.”
That might be true. It always seemed as though Bryant was partially driven to outdo Jordan by skipping college all together. And Bryant has admitted that had he gone to college, he would've gone to UNC. So perhaps a year or two on a Tar Heel team that already featured the likes of Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter changes a few things.
But then again, maybe it doesn’t.
Time in college might have refined Bryant’s game a bit more for the pros, but similarly to the Mike that doesn’t exist in this world you’re reading about, it might have held him back and caged him in.
He learned to tone things down and trust his teammates in order to win later in the NBA, but the biggest trait Bryant and Jordan share is a relentless competitive drive.
“Without the shadow of MJ, I have to say look at Kobe’s competitive nature,” Lazenby continued. “It’s entirely organic of MJ. Even as much as he was shaped by his father’s time and experience as a pro, Kobe’s different.”
So college or not, Kobe’s still a killer on the court. That never changes.
The second biggest question for Kobe if there’s no Mike: Who does he pattern his game after?
Bryant’s stated his whole career that he watched greats like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor via tapes from his family in the U.S. while he was living in Italy, and stole pieces from them all. He’s also said that Magic Johnson was really his favorite player growing up, which lead to his love of the Los Angeles Lakers and Showtime.
But it’s hard to picture Bryant running the point and play-making, a la Magic, for 20 years. Not because of skill. Simply because of demeanor.
With no Mike to live under, there are very few guards before him to consider and you have to think that Bryant becomes the two guard mold.
“It’s hard to imagine because [the NBA shooting guard prototype] is built off the Jordan template,” said ESPN’s Bomani Jones. “The thing is a lot of people evaluated him off not being Mike, but if there is no MJ, he’s the guy with five rings.”
In the hypo-world with no MJ, we don’t see a player, especially at guard, reach the mountaintop and never get knocked off.
Magic, Isaiah Thomas and Larry Bird all lost in finals appearances and prior to Jordan, NBA Finals losses weren’t terribly tarnishing to a “chosen ones” legacy. If Jordan doesn’t exist, we don’t have a GOAT who’s legend includes never losing a championship or even reaching a Game 7 for that matter.
Any superstar who loses a finals series better be prepared to make it up two times over in order to be at the NBA mythology table.
But without MJ, and with five rings, there’s still the style and influence that Kobe’s had on two NBA generations now: from LeBron James down the Andrew Wiggins — and even the budding collegiate star Bryant’s taken to, Buddy Hield.
The swagger, the demeanor, the fallaway, the blue print on what the highest level of guard play looks like, Bryant embodies that like no other player without Jordan.
“You take Jordan away and Kobe does everything he’s done, he’s probably the best two guard to play,” said Russ Bengtson, the former Editor-in-Chief of SLAM Magazine and current Sneaker Editor for Complex. “You have Dwyane Wade, Reggie Miller, Clyde Drexler; all of them did things but Kobe and Jordan are the guys who really put it all together.”
“The will to work that Kobe had and with the things he’s done, you can’t have that just because you wan’t to be like Mike,” continued Bengtson. “[Jordan’s] influence on Kobe gets weighed-in probably more than it should.”
The respect for Kobe is there because we literally watched him compete until his body broke. Injury after injury after injury reminded the world that Bryant’s mortal, even on the basketball court and that even if it takes some miraculous revival from Paul Pierce or some mental maneuvering from Chauncey Billups an'nem to beat Bryant when it counts.
Father time is undefeated. However, the most interesting aspect of the world with without Mike, all other things remaining the same, is the story arch of achievement.
Mike rose to the top as the unquestioned leader. Kobe came in as — and really worked his way up to — second option under Shaq. Perhaps Kobe’s even more revealed for doing that if there's no Bulls legend.
Of course, we’ll never know. And the game is better for having Jordan AND Bryant be key sources of inspiration and further its development.
One thing rings true regardless of MJ’s influence on Kobe. It is kind of as a result of how we view the game’s best players, due largely because of Mike and how Bryant answered that challenge to carry the torch: there isn’t another a player in the past twenty years that’s associated with being a champion like Kobe.
“There aren't a lot of people in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan,” said Jones. “But Kobe’s been the defining player of basketball for the past 20 years. No one won more championships from the time period of 2000 to 2010. With or without MJ, we still honor him. He’s that important to the [game’s] history.”
In a world with no Mike, Kobe is unquestionably the best shooting guard. Maybe the best Laker. And even has a case for the best ever.
But we live in this world where we’ve witnessed both of their careers play out. I couldn’t imagine one different.