The League is in much better shape than it was 10 years ago, but we're still waiting on the Next Jordan. It's part reflex, part messianic yearning, part laziness on the part of fans, scouts and pundits alike, and part nostalgia.
But the problem isn't that we're looking for the Next Jordan. It's that we've always assumed it would be one single player, like His Airness himself — when in fact, we've got him right now. It's just taken two superstars, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, to give us everything Jordan did. Both players have long been considered for the crown, but both come up short for different reasons. And that's exactly why, when both of them are in their prime, we can put this Next Jordan question to rest. For now.
(Yes, there's a history of religion analogy in there, but I'm not going to be the one to make it explicit.)
No post-Jordan baller has more consciously emulated His Airness than Kobe Bryant, at least in his early years. On the court, he had that same combination of frightening competitiveness, superlative athleticism, and high basketball IQ. Off of it, Bryant became the heir to MJ's ultra-bland public image, which attracted endorsement deals and never sounded the slightest note of controversy. He even went so far as to imitate Jordan's cadence and body language.
But there was a problem: While Kobe may well have been the single greatest basketball player on the planet, people hated the guy. He was riding Shaquille O'Neal's coattails. He was riding Phil Jackson's coattails. He was secretly an incompetent ball hog. He was fake, phony, and even those who liked him all right could never truly say that Kobe Bryant was towering, inspiring cultural presence. This only got worse once Bryant ran into legal troubles in Eagle, Colo., and found himself on a Shaq-less Lakers team that played ugly as sin.
Over the last few years, though, something extraordinary has happened. Kobe no longer strives to be important to the man on the street, to matter the way Jordan once did. His marketing presence has bordered on goofy: Dressing up as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, faking a jump over a speeding Aston Martin in a viral video, and coming off as way too excited to play "Rock Band" in a primetime ad for the game. With this, though, has come an almost universal appreciation of just how darn good the guy is, how his mastery of the sport, work ethic, and relentless determination are probably the closest we'll ever see to another Jordan.
So what about that other side of Jordan, the larger-than-life icon whose wealth, celebrity, and influence reached astronomical heights? Some might cast a vote for Kobe's former teammate Shaq, who once upon a time was the league's most beloved figure. Or perhaps Allen Iverson, though he was always more of an anti-hero. Looking around today's league, though, the choice is clear. LeBron James, while not yet the disciplined master that Bryant is, fills that niche of mainstream multimedia god that Kobe gave up on, and that no one since Jordan has so clearly taken as his own.
Kobe Bryant is concerned primarily with that yeomanly work of getting the game's nuances down to a science and proving he can win a ring on his own. James, on the other hand, might not even need a championship to go down in history. That might anger some, but certainly, a lot of Jordan's appeal rested on that kind of almost mystical appeal. In Jordan, we had both the consummate athlete and a man who was able to remake the sport, and the business around it, in his image. Kobe has always been consumed by the former; now he's totally undistracted. And judging from LeBron's first five-plus seasons, his most lasting contribution to this era may come in that other, no less important, form.
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