Sports column: Wake up, Kobe lovers

By Mike Szwaja

Perhaps it’s fitting for Kobe Bryant that the Chinese calendar labels 2004 as the year of the monkey, because Bryant has had a huge monkey on his back all year.

It started when he refused to shoot during a game against the Kings last season in an attempt to prove to his teammates and Phil Jackson that his scoring was essential to the team’s success.

It continued when the Pistons embarrassed the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Jackson left the team – a move the Zen Master basically blamed on Bryant.

When Bryant became a free agent, he did so with an ultimatum for GM Mitch Kupchak – trade Shaq or you’ll have to watch me fill the Staples Center with Clippers fans.

Now, Bryant has to prove to Kupchak, Shaq and the rest of the NBA that he can win without the Diesel in the middle. Whether Bryant likes to admit it, he wants to show everyone he can be better than Jordan ever was.

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To accomplish both those goals, Bryant will have to demonstrate that he – a guard – can dominate the game without a dominant center. Wilt Chamberlin, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Bill Russell were all great basketball players, but let’s be honest – their size helped them rule the game.

Jordan was the only player in the history of the NBA that completely mastered and dominated the game as a guard. Before someone tries to shove Oscar Robertson’s career numbers in my direction, let me remind you that the Big O won his lone ring in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Jabbar was the center on that team.

Jordan’s mastery of the game included his defense, something Bryant still needs to improve. Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach used to call Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant his “snapping Dobermans” on defense, but Jordan was Best in Show when it came to shutting someone down.

Some of Jordan’s finest highlights came on defense. Remember MJ punching the ball out of Buck Williams’s hands during the 1992 NBA Finals? Or how about swatting the ball away from Karl Malone seconds before he sealed his sixth NBA title?

Players feared Jordan when his forearm was in their backs. That same fear doesn’t seem to resonate from opposing players who play against Bryant; and Bryant hasn’t had any of those groundbreaking defensive moments.

Jordan also made everyone around him so much better. Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Dennis Hopson, Bobby Hansen, Steve Kerr, and the list goes on.

Dennis who?

We caught a glimpse of this improvement on Tuesday night when new Lakers center Chris Mihm had a career night in his first game with Bryant. Mihm had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Bryant had 25, and the Lakers won. It was one game, but it was Jordan-esque.

One night later in Utah, Mihm was back to his old self – six points and five rebounds. But Bryant was leading the charge, finishing the game with 38 points. One other Lakers player finished in double figures, Lamar Odom with 14. The Jazz beat the Lakers easily, 104-78.

Jordan fell into the “I’m trying to do too much” trap early in his career. Remember MJ’s 63-point playoff performance in Boston Garden in 1986? We forget the Bulls lost that game.

Jordan conquered his demons because he never stopped getting better. He was never satisfied in the now. He was the best, but he knew he could always get better. That’s a mindset Bryant hasn’t showcased yet.

I won’t argue with anyone who says Bryant is the best player in the NBA, but better than Jordan? No way. Just wait until June when the Lakers are limping their way through the playoffs without a dominant big man.

By then, it will be 2005, the Chinese calendar’s year of the rooster. Fitting, because come June we’ll all wake up and realize Kobe Bryant has a long way to go if he wants to catch Michael Jordan.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected].