Career Parallels: Kareem and Kobe

J.M. Poulard —  October 7, 2011

Basketball as we know it today is heavily influenced by the contributions and memories of whom I like to call The Three Wise Men: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. And in truth, how could it not? Between their combined 28 All-NBA 1st team selections, 20 NBA Finals appearances, 14 championship rings, 11 Finals MVP trophies, 11 MVP awards and countless memorable playoff moments, it goes without saying that they are the guardians of the modern basketball game.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not only saved professional basketball during the 1980s, but they also revived it and took it to new heights. Fans once again wanted to root for teams and players and the Lakers and Celtics rivalry was not only renewed, but now offered actual drama given the fact that Los Angeles was victorious on a few occasions against Boston.

Michael Jordan obtained an unmatched iconic status by dominating his era and conquering every challenger to his throne. Every few years it seemed as though some new player would emerge with similar strengths to come take away what he had worked for, but Jordan never relented. He owned the 1990s and made sure we all knew it from the moment the final game of his championship seasons had concluded as he held his fingers up to remind of us how many titles he had won.

Jordan’s legacy is unquestionable, but it also benefitted from the advances in technology. MJ’s career came to a close a few years prior to the age of the internet where fans from across the globe were able to get all of the information they needed simply by logging onto a computer. With Jordan retired, the generation that watched him play romanticized his career over the internet and made sure that it would never be forgotten.

And thus, every time a great player today performs during the postseason when the pressure is at its highest, his performance will be measured against that of the Three Wise Men to determine whether it was truly historic and worthy of entering the pantheon of legends (example: during the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals, LeBron’s play was compared to that of Magic and MJ).

Jordan, Johnson and Bird have certainly deserved the recognition and accolades that have been bestowed upon them, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been just as successful if not more than most of the aforementioned players and yet routinely gets lost in the shuffle when talks of all time greats heat up.

The former UCLA Bruin has made 10 NBA Finals appearances, has 10 All-NBA 1st team selections to his name, six championship rings, six MVP awards and two NBA Finals MVP trophies. Clearly, he is more than qualified to enter any conversation centering on the prospects of which player is the most dominant the league has ever seen.

And yet, Abdul-Jabbar is often forgotten. During the 2011 playoffs, Kareem bristled at the idea that the Lakers had not honored him with a statue for his contributions to the purple and gold. Some saw it as him whining over the attention and respect that Jerry West and Magic Johnson still command today. But in reality, the legend had a point.

Abdul-Jabbar never cared much for playing the media game. Most stars today understand that it is a must; selling your brand to the public equates to exposure and thus players are easier to identify and relate to.

Kareem on the other hand was a different breed during most of his playing days. He had been a prodigy as high school center and consequently was already a celebrity at the time. Indeed, back when he was a teenager, he went to Rucker Park to watch Wilt Chamberlain (who was then in his third year in the NBA) take on some of the best playground players of the era. The teenager went by the name of Lew Alcindor and introduced himself to The Big Dipper and lo and behold, Wilt already knew whom he was.

If one of the NBA’s best players was already aware of the exploits of this high school player, everybody else in the country must have had heard about him as well. Consequently, Alcindor lived most of his teenage years and adult life as a celebrity. The constant attention and expectations came very rapidly and the young man grew tired of it rather quickly, especially considering the fact that media members rarely approached him with questions worthy of his intellect; or so he thought.

The star in the making was reading about Black Muslims, Islam, jazz, baseball and happened to love playing basketball. But given the fact that he was rarely asked questions about things he deemed important, he shut himself off from the media.

Even those who were fortunate to get a few words out of the giant, rarely had much to write about because Abdul-Jabbar would purposely give them quotes that could not be used in print (for instance he once referred to slavery and used several expletives to get his point across in a postgame interview). Consequently, Kareem became the star that could never satisfy the world: if he played well, he was supposed to because he was bigger than everybody else and when he played poorly, the press made sure to single him out.

In his autobiography Giant Steps, Abdul-Jabbar theorizes that he was robbed of the 1971 NBA All-Star Game MVP as well as the 1980 NBA Finals MVP precisely for these reasons. The media liked to sell stories and his just did not appeal to many because he refused to help them write his.

If we fast forward to today, we can only wonder if the same fate awaits Kobe Bean Bryant. His legacy as perhaps the greatest Laker ever is set in stone. He has the accolades, the rings, the pressure performances and the respect of peers. It would be tough to find a player that has delivered more often than Bryant in the postseason over the course of the last decade.

These are all undeniable facts today, but will his story be told to future generations as a landmark in NBA history or merely in passing? Between sports blogs, Twitter, Facebook and various other social media tools, it’s quite possible that Kobe will have a legacy that few will ever be able to match. As observers of this era, one would think that much like we protected and defended Jordan to younger basketball fans, the same would be done with Bryant.

However, there is still some trepidation on whether the Colorado case as well as the break-up with Shaquille O’Neal will always rub people the wrong way. In addition, his short guarded answers during the playoffs in recent years may have cost him some valuable media points.

In my estimation, Michael Jordan is a better player than Kobe Bryant; but that opinion stems from watching both players excel on the hardwood for numerous seasons. Unfortunately, some may share my opinion, but for all the wrong reasons.

Far too often, it seems as though athletes are obligated to be nearly perfect in order to reach the status of icon. Jordan, Magic and Bird figured out ways to sell their brand at a time where they still maintained some sort of privacy. Abdul-Jabbar on the other hand put himself in a situation where few wanted to sell his brand for him and it certainly seems as though it cost him in terms of how revered he is as opposed to other greats.

Kobe Bryant falls somewhere in between the trio and Kareem. Whether it’s the multiple game-winning shots, the 81-point game, the eight points in overtime in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals or helping the Lakers win Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant’s career is an incredible story to tell. Let’s just hope it gets told just as it happened…

In grand fashion.

J.M. Poulard