Myth of the Given
“If Jordan was in that game, they never would have lost. Jordan would never let the Lakers blow Game 7 like that. He would have been up in peoples’ faces, pulling on Jerseys, going to the rack. If Kobe was as good as Jordan, he would have gotten to the line at least 10 times in the second half!” - Anonymous Radio Caller.
“So when the Suns came out even hotter in the third quarter, Kobe basically quit. For sure, he quit shooting. He scored one more point -- on a technical-foul free throw. Jordan never would have done that.” - Skip Bayless
Let’s get one thing straight: It is impossible to say what Jordan would not have done in any given situation. History has failed to entrust the present with a sufficient almanac of “Things Jordan Didn’t Do”. If such comparisons make sense to us, it is because they express a moral judgment, not an empirical one. We’ll never know if Jordan wouldn’t have taken just 3 shots in the second half of Game 7; what we do know, however, is that he wouldn’t have quit.
O.K. Fine. But is that really what Kobe did? Is giving the ball up to your teammates really the same as giving up? Of course it isn’t. In the 1st quarter, Kobe went 2-4 for 4 points and the Lakers fell behind by 17. In the 2nd quarter, he went 6-9 for 16 points and the Lakers were still down by 15. When Bayless confesses to having “the halftime feeling that he (Kobe) would at least make it crazy close”, he’s either lying or crazy. Everyone watching that game knew that until the rest of his team started scoring, it didn’t matter how much Kobe shot in the second half. Kobe knew it too.
Kobe in the second half was doing the same thing he’d done throughout the series: he was trying to motivate his teammates. It’s the exact same thing that Phil does when things get rough - refusing to call timeouts, or taking his stars out of the game to make the supporting cast step up. He was doing exactly what Phil wanted him to do, exactly what Phil told us he wanted him to do, and exactly what the world had praised him for in games 2, 3 and 4. Remember game 4, when Kobe scored just 24 points, and shot only 6 times in the entire second half? According to Bayless, “Kobe out-Jordaned Jordan in game 4”. As for his comparable second-half drought in game 7: “Jordan never would have done that.”
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
- Jordan and Phil reunite in '95, and the Bulls face Orlando in the Semifinals.
- The Bulls lose Game 1; Jordan changes his jersey number from #45 back to #23; the Bulls win Game 2.
- In Games 3 and 5, Jordan explodes for 40 and 39, but the Bulls end up loosing them both.
- Jordan scores just 26 points in Game 4, but the Bulls win anyway - a victory widely attributed to Jordan’s “unselfishness down the stretch”, and the positive contributions of his supporting cast.
- Down 3-2, Jordan gives a similarly unselfish performance in Game 6, scoring just 24, and giving the ball up to his teammates in a series of late-game possessions. Only this time, his teammates miss their shots, and the Bulls make their earliest exit from the playoffs since 1988.
Suddenly, everyone in the press begins to wonder, why did Jordan fade down the stretch?. “Michael Jordan is finally playing a game he can't win”, read the Mike Lupica headline:
This wasn't about Michael vs. the Magic, or Michael vs. Shaq. This was all about Michael against Michael. The new No. 23 against the old one. This was all about him. The Bulls lost the series in six games as the new No. 23 could not turn it on at the end, the way the old No. 23 could. (Newsday, 05/29/95)
Of course, we all know what happened after that.
As I said before, its impossible to know what Jordan wouldn’t have done in Kobe’s situation. And until we discover both a cryogenically frozen, 27-year old Jordan and a time-machine to transport him in, the question of what he would have done will be similarly indeterminate. But if this comparison must have its conclusion, then it should be reached, not through wistful moralism or speculative psychology, but by looking to see what Jordan himself did under similar conditions. Fortunately for us, one condition in particular is as similar as they come.
Like Jackson and Jordan in ‘95, Jackson and Kobe were recently reunited, and coming into the playoffs this year they faced the same problems of team chemistry as did the ’95 Bulls. And just as he did against the Magic, Phil ordered Kobe to involve his teamates rather than go it alone - to live or die by their performance . In both cases, they died. But unless the mantle of “Jordan-esque” be denied to Jordan himself, it can't be denied to Kobe either – at least not for what he did in Game 7. After all, Kobe was following the exact same orders, from the exact same coach as Jordan. Indeed, if there is any continuity behind the Jordan-Kobe comparison, Jackson is it. Likewise, if there is anyone in a position to say that "Jordan would have played differently" in Game 7, it's Jackson. But Jackson hasn't said that, and for obvious reasons: saying "Jordan would have played differently" would be the same as saying "I would have coached differently". Even if that were the case, it still wouldn't be on Kobe.
This doesn’t mean that Kobe should be considered Jordan’s heir – personally, I don’t think he should be yet. But this isn’t because of some inherent weakness of character, as the Bayless’s of the world are quick to claim, but simply a matter of accomplishment. Jordan was 32 when the Bulls lost in ’95. Kobe is 27. He still has plenty of time.