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

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35 responses to Career Parallels: Kareem and Kobe

  1. I think Kobe’s done enough both as a player and as a marketer of his brand that he’ll be remembered as an all time great and consistently mentioned as one of the one or two best players of his era (joining Shaq and Duncan).

    That said, I also think history may protray him as lacking in a lot of ways as the narrative of his career from a personality and peak performer standpoint will always be compared to Jordan. This, for a variety of reasons is unfair and is something I try to avoid even discussing because it only brings out the ever tired Kobe/MJ debate that goes nowhere.

    In the end, I’m just grateful that I saw Kareem, Kobe, Magic, Bird, and MJ play a lot of games in their storied careers. And, in a lot of ways, I’ll feel sorry for those that can’t say the same.

  2. Yea… I do not understand why people have to debate Kobe and Jordan. If you have watched both you know they are similar players with MJ being clearly the better player.

  3. what should it matter,
    beyond the hopefully friendly debates
    ’round the ol’ hot stove?

    ( barring the lock out )
    I get to see Kobe right now,
    I have enjoyed immensely what I have seen
    and look forward to what I have yet to see,
    grateful that his career is swathed in forum blue and gold.

    If you’re a basketball fan,
    you cannot ask for more that what KBB
    and his predecessors have given,
    putting it out on the floor at the highest
    level of their ability.

    That’s the only comparison
    that’s worth considering.
    Beyond that, people will like who they like
    for all sorts of reasons.

    You should expect the up-and-comers
    to work to dedicate themselves and excel
    by that measurement for the benefit
    of the league and the fans and themselves,
    for without one of those three components
    there is no league.

    I also hope that the future players will also
    take advantage of the opportunities that
    their athletic talents have availed them
    to become as educated as the likes of
    Kareem, Magic, and Kobe — that includes
    learning from their mistakes.

    All hail Kareem and Kobe!

    Don’t sweat the statue — it will come.
    We remember and appreciate

    - 5 -

  4. @ Darius, I was glad to see you mention Tim Duncan. Tim, Shaq, & Kobe were the 3 larger than life standouts in the late ’90′s- early 2000′s. I just don’t understand why people (those who love him & hate him) have a problem with who Kobe is. And that’s the 2nd best 2 guard in NBA history. That’s high praise. I’ve watched the NBA a longtime, since I was a 13 year old kid (1965). All 3 of the aforementioned guys would make my personal 12 man rooster of the best guys I’ve ever seen play.

    And over 46 seasons, I believe that’s high praise. And since I’m an old school guy, positions are still important to me.

    My All time team:

    Centers:
    -Kareem, Wilt, & Shaq
    PF:
    -Karl Malone & Tim Duncan
    SF:
    -LeBron, Bird, & Dr. J
    SG:
    -Jordan, Kobe, Jerry West
    PG:
    -Magic, Oscar

    note: yes it was very difficult for me to leave off Olajuwon, but……

    It’ll be a longtime before one of those guys is replaced on my list.

    ‘Nuff said

  5. #4. Besides Duncan, KG was a player that I always though very highly of. In terms of overall skill and defensive ability, I think he’s pretty much Duncan’s peer. Duncan edges him out – at least for me – because of the titles won AND how his game was more dependable due to his reliance on low post play.

    But, and this is 100% honesty, KG is one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen but also someone whose legacy will be tainted more than it should be by his asinine antics on the court from the past 3-5 years.

  6. Why should Kareem have had to cater to the whims of the media?
    Why does any athlete in any sport have to wear some bogus image created by some self serving media person?
    Does the word unique individual and truth come to mind in any of this?

    The media will be remembered as a racists bigoted lie center if it attempted to create any derogatory image of Kobe Bryant.

    Kobe has served the NBA and the game with the highest of honor and integrity thruout his career. Older fans have watched Kobe Bryant develop into one of the most complete and dedicated players ever to play the game at any time.
    Sure, as a younger player he maid some
    childish mistakes. Who has’nt? Ah the beauty
    of youth. How

  7. Thank you Kobe for the many spetacular performances you’ve given us over the years.

    Please retire when you and Lamar, Drew, Ron, Pau and the Team win this final championship.

  8. #6. You went off the rails in the middle there…jeez.

  9. @BigCitySyd: Funny that you had that add-on note because after going through your list that was the first thing that popped in my head. Where’s Olajuwon? lol.

    Shaq and Kareem have to be there so if I had to choose between Wilt and Olajuwon, I gotta go with The Dream.

    I’m with the rest of your post, tho’.

  10. Ronald W Weathersby October 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    In your dissertation about Kareem you left out the fact that his college coach, John Wooden kept his all-world center away from the press for years as a way of protecting him (he did the same with Bill Walton).

    Wooden instilled a certain amount of uneasiness and suspicion in Abdul-Jabbar towards the press that I believe stayed with him for years. Couple that with the fact the media seemed more interested in his personal life than his exploits on the hardwood and Kareem justifiably kept his distance.

    That should have absolutely nothing to do with his accomplishments and no amount of half-hearted explanations or rationalizing can explain away the lack of respect Kareem receives.

    It’s real simple, anyone who does not mention his name in any conversation regarding the greatest basketball player of all time doesn’t know much about the game and probably has no clue relative to what they are talking about.

  11. kobe has a completely different approach to the media than kareem. the latter pissed off more than the press, hence his inability to land a decent coaching job. kobe is the Steve Jobs of the nba…

  12. Slava send another communication, requesitng that I write something new and link it here. He also said that he admired Kareem’s way with the press.
    http://bit.ly/pUDb6I

  13. I THINK MJ WAS A GREAT PLAYER AFTER HIS 2ND R 3RD YEAR I DID NOT FOLLOW THE BULLS A LOT I AM A LAKER FAN AND MY #1 PLAYER WAS MAGIC JOHNSON AS A PLAYER #2 WAS KAREEM #3WAS OLAJUWON IN THE LAST 10 YEARS KOBE HAS CARRIED THE TORCH AND MAY BE THEBEST SCORER OF ALL TIME I THINK LJ COULD BECOME THE GREATS ALL AROUND PLAYER IF HE LEARNS HOW 2 POST UP SND WORK HARDER BEFORE ITS TO LATE.

  14. Interesting article and perspective. Glad to see the great writers on this blog see the big picture that is Laker basketball. Simply put Kareem does not get the recognition he should because of his personality which came at a time when social change and the angry athlete were not so pravelent. People admire him immensely but from a distance because he is hard to relate to for many reasons.

    I was born and raised in Southern California and we became fans of the Lakers Kings Aztecs Dodgers et al simply because this was our area and where dad took us to see the games. While I was maybe a bit young to do any real analysis at the time, when the Lakers got Kareem from Milwaukee, it stood out. I remember it even if my memory of sports is minimal from that time as a very young child. We knew Kareem without really knowing him. I didnt check box scores in the Times to see certain players, but when I would look at them as I tried to understand the sports page beyond the standings while still not totally understanding all the numbers, the name Abdul-Jabbar represented something. He was the player. The dominating force in basketball. It was understood and we were afraid of his greatness yet so happy he was a Laker. That only became reinforced as the 70s ended. With the arrival of Magic, it took on a new look, but Kareem was still the force and his talents still to me surpassed everyone even if flashes came along like Moses Malone et al.

    Kareem was one of a kind and he made modern day basketball in LA. He deserves as much if not more recognition then any other player in Lakers history. Yes as I have aged my passion is not what it was back then even if I am still a big fan so maybe that makes me emphasize a time I was simply happy. I love Kobe but he will never excite me like Kareem did. Maybe that is the advantage of youth. The sad thing that is the endless debate of Kobes legacy all over the internet, to me it only reinforces the greatness of Kareem on so many levels that went beyond what he did on the court.

    He should be the first Laker with a statue and the fact one has not been made for him is to me a reflection of an underappreciated time in our lives, atleast for those in my generation.

  15. My All Time 5.
    C: Kareem Abdul Jabbar
    PF: Karl Malone
    SF: Larry Bird
    SG: Michael Jordan
    PG: Magic Johnson
    offense is the best defense, enuf said.

  16. I’ve always, always, always said Cap was the rightful GOAT (to the ire of others, most notably many of my fellow Lakers fans). Not hard to imagine at all why he has consistently been denigrated as difficult, distant, or whatever. He’s an outspoken, intelligent, completely honest black Muslim in a nation that, across the entire political spectrum, is waging a crusade against Islam. I’m not religious myself, in fact am an atheist, but it’s pretty clear there’s bias in the corporate press, the owners, and sponsors against certain players who have a “bad attitude.” Kareem’s crime is being too smart, too frank. If Kareem was a conservative Christian and kept his comments limited to soda pop and sneakers, he’d have his pick of general manager positions.

    But in my opinion, and the facts, the on-court accomplishments absolutely support me, he stands apart as the greatest basketball player of all time. His entire career from high school, college, through the end of his time in the NBA are a resounding success. Jordan, Magic, Bird cannot make that claim. No other player can.

    He’s ostracized purely for his beliefs.

    He may never receive his complete due, but in the mind of this true fan of the game of basketball (and not necessarily the NBA), he is the greatest.

  17. One more thing…

    I note that my comment is “awaiting moderation” and I decided to read your comment guidelines after I posted. I see that you mention that politics is not appropriate in your comments, but I will say this. Any discussion about Kareem that does not discuss politics is worthless. Trying to analyze the life, impact, and career difficulties of Kareem without mentioning his views is like talking about Mohammed Ali as if all he was was some smooth talking dude who liked to punch people in the face for money.

    Sure. You can do it, but it’s completely vapid, worthless. In other words, pretty much like all sports “journalism.” That’s why Kareem is left out. He often insists on going beyond the dunking balls and wearing sweet sneakers lobotomized buffoonery of pro sports. He has something to say, and it pisses a lot of people off.

    His crime was being a complete human and not just a one-sided, slam-dunking pitchman for some burger chain (though to be completely fair, it’s not like he was above doing that. I remember, as a matter of fact, around 1990 or so when Kareem was in Fairbanks, AK where I was working to open a K-Mart. I don’t know what that was about, but I was too sad to actually go to see him there. I’d love to hear the story behind how he ended up in Alaska opening a damn K-Mart. It’s not like he couldn’t get better gigs, right?).

  18. @cjm

    >> kobe is the Steve Jobs of the nba…

    Worth remembering that as much as Jobs was rightfully admired, he was also loathed by some. Feared too, and often by the same people who loved him. In fact, it can be argued that Kareem is more like Jobs (though it applies to Kobe as well) in that both were known to rub a lot of people the wrong way to achieve dominating success. Of course, the same was said of Jordan (and Magic and Bird). And really, how many people achieve complete success on a global level without having a Hyde to go with their Jekyll?

  19. FYI, the commenting guidelines are meant to keep the topics on basketball. That said, as you mentioned and as the post alluded to, both Kobe and Kareem are complex people with backstories that go beyond what they bring to the basketball court. I’m allowing some leeway in the comments of this post but it’s not the nature of the site to get into the politics of an individual as that usually only breeds the type of back and forth that is never settled and usually gets disrespectful quickly.

  20. Spudnuts is certainly right about having to look at someone with an eye on the time they played in.

    Kareem started playing in the Civil Rights era and his persona was helped along by the press coverage during that era.

    Wilt played before and during this era and he was covered as an ‘uppity black man’ (I am trying to avoid censorship here).

    Kobe came along during the steroids era, when the press took themselves as judge, jury, and executioner.

    All three players had problems with the press and the press paid them back in full measure.

    It is interesting to note that it is Kobe who has adjusted the best. Of course he also is the only one who exists during the time of the internet and sports figures employing PR people.

  21. #14, my team may well beat your team if I’m allowed to put Scottie Pippen as Point Guard:

    C: Shaquile Oneal
    PF: Tim Duncan
    SF: Lebron James
    SG: Kobe Bryant
    PG: Scottie Pippen

    My defense beats your offense…

  22. Things were different when Kareem came onto the scene. There were three networks, no cable, no internet. Taking a stand took more of a conscious effort and he walked the walk. The first time I saw him play was in glorious b&w… I was just a kid, will never forget it. He was known as Alcindor then… had some jaw-dropping moves.

  23. #22: i say try harder:
    match-up
    C: Kareem vs Shaq: Shaq cant stop the skyhook. its the unblockable shot closest rival is Dirk’s leaning fade away tip-toe shot.
    PF: Duncan vs Malone: close but i give it to Duncan.
    SF: Lebron vs Bird: Lebron may be stronger and faster but bird is smarter, more creative and deadly accurate. lebron is a choker while bird is clutch. Bird wins this match up.
    SG: Jordan vs Kobe: Jordan no need explaining.
    PG: Magic vs Pippen: Magic will abuse Pippen’s Defense and Magic’s court vision will simply crush any help defense considering how talented offensively his teammates.

  24. thisisweaksauce October 9, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Kobe Bryant has been subject to so much scrutiny and analysis by those who seek to downplay or demonize his every accomplishment and those who seek to defend him against such. (Eh, I know that there are those in between those extremes, but hey, it’s more poetic that way.) Anyway, in the end, I like to recall what Theodore Roosevelt once said (this isn’t really so much politics as it is history):

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    All the Abbotts and Simmons in the world may shower Kobe with 6 for 24s, supposedly mediocre clutch statistics, or players with better PERs. But in the end, he’s the one on the court doing things one could only imagine. Then after all his hard work, sweat, and disappointment, we are left with a man with the (5, hopefully more) titles and one of the greatest players ever.

  25. Been awhile since I posted.

    The all-time greatness debate usually ends in draw… Sinply coz there was no way to match em up. But for good measure, my team stands at:

    C: Kareem
    PF: Gasol
    SF: Pippen
    SG: Miller
    PG: Magic

    As you noticed my team is quite balanced in alot of ways. I hate to sport my 5 best at every position simply coz basketball, when played the right way is made up of 5 individuals selflessly making each other better to qchieve a common goal.

    But thats my 2c and you can do nuthin bout it :D

  26. All of this is pure speculation and only the people in the Lakers office and Kareen knows what is going on, the spouting off about it all, simply mental
    masturbation.

  27. My best would be…

    C: Hakeem
    PF: KG
    SF: LBJ
    SG: Jordan
    PG: Glove

    Somehow I left all my Lakers out(not counting the glove), but this is what I ended up with. If I were to put a Laker here somewhere, it’d probably be Wilt for Hakeem, and maybe Gasol for KG. Wanted to put KJohnson instead of the glove as I just like the guy… but somehow the glove fit better.

    Basically I’ve surrounded Jordan with good defenders at their position and one Pippen-esque all around talent at the 3 and opted for either intensity or insanity or both at every spot ;)

    Yes, LBJ is insane. At least I don’t think a sane person would’ve jumped to Miami to join Wade.

  28. I’ll go nine deep…

    C: Hakeem, Shaq
    PF: Duncan, KG
    SF: LeBron, Pippen
    SG: Kobe, Jordan, Pippen
    PG: Jordan, Magic

  29. Oh… And I had a dream the lockout ended and Fisher was no longer our PG. Let’s just say it’s been a good day so far…

  30. All great teams, but my intent was to match up against #14′s Dream Team

  31. I hate to be the only one on here to say it, but apparently I’m surrounded by guys that like to reminisce about the good ol’ days. Unfortunately, alot of people tend to stretch fact from fiction and ignore common sense. It’s a way to keep this fairy tale of an image of your favorite player to live on in some psychotic sick delusional fan-like way. And I may fall victim to it someday as I progress in my years, but being 32 I’ve been blessed to see and watch both Magic, Kareem, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Lebron & other greats. And I will stand (or sit rather) and type in the words “Kobe is the Greatest of All-Time”.
    Most of you will say Magic, Kareem or Jordan, but you fail to acknowledge the competition in those eras…? Yes, yes…when you think of the 80′s & 90′s you can muster up some of the Legends of the game. No doubt. Unfortunately alot of these legends either played on a stacked team going against a league that wasn’t stacked or they had 1 superstar with a bunch of clowns. So, in other words Jordan played in a league where there were 2 or 3 teams at best that were just as stacked as his Bulls, but the majority of Teams were like Lebron’s Cavaliers. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to give a player who shot a better percentage or more points when the teams he was up against weren’t on par to the teams of today. Plus, when did Jordan when championships..?? Oh that’s right..not until Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers were on there way out.

    I’m not hating on Jordan. He’s one of the greatest EVER! But until they build a time machine to extract Jordan from the early 90′s to Kobe in 06-08 then don’t talk to me.

    Nuff said-

  32. @33

    Spot On.People tend to dwell on the ”dirtiness” level of play especially the 80′s but apart from those ”hackings” overall level was really weak and Jordan was conducting Doug Collins PG model.He was the one then.Inflated overall statistic numbers also helped already an otherworldly large handed phenom.Alas,overall the leauge was weak other than a couple of pioneers.
    Cheers.

  33. OK who cares who was the GOAT it is so so so subjective. I have been a fan since 1960. I hated the Celtics as a kid and still do. I follow players not teams and have been privilidged to see many great one’s. Can we forget Patrick Ewing his career and numbers parallel The Dream. If John Starks doesnt stink out the joint and the Knick had one surely Patrick would be in this discussion. How can Cousy and Stockton not be mentioned as all time greats PG’s. where is Elgin Baylor in this discussion. Are titles the measuring stick? is dominance the measuring stick. Is marketing and popularity the stick. i dont know honestly. Every single player has flaws in their game and as a fan i can nitpick everyone from Mikan to Lebron. the one thing i can say is this, thank you to them all for bringing me much joy and providing us a platform to reminence and debate. For us to be having this discussion tells me they all are.