ďI donít want to be the next Michael Jordan. I only want to be Kobe Bryant.Ē
Ever since His Airness retired for good, the basketball world was awaiting the arrival of the Air Apparent, anointing anyone who played above the rim without truly understanding what they were watching as the next greatest thing since Jordan.
As evidenced by the words that came out of his mouth, Kobe Bryant didnít want to be the next Jordan.
Bryant has arrived at that point in his career where people have to take a long hard look to see whether theyíll ever be another Kobe Bryant.
In time, maybe sooner rather than later, people are going to have to view Bryant at perhaps being even better than Jordan.
Thatís how good Bryant is and how much more he has to accomplish with a Lakers team that is going to contend for championships for at least the next three years, including this year.
Bryant has no brand like Jordan had when Jordanís endorsement ties with Nike were groundbreaking.
But Bryant is universally recognized, his popularity on the global stage without peer and heís within reach of being his eraís most decorated baller.
Think of Kobeís contemporaries and names such as Shaquille OíNeal and Tim Duncan quickly jump out, names that will be remembered among the gameís very best, regardless of era.
Shaq, Duncan and Bryant have each won four NBA titles, but their careers are now going in entirely different directions.
Shaq played his final game with Cleveland, reduced to a bench warmer as the Cavs tried to play at a higher pace in their futile comeback bid against Boston.
Shaq is a free agent this summer and says he wants to extend a career that is clearly eroding, fast becoming comical.
If a team does take a flyer on Shaq, under no circumstance is heís going to command the $20 million Shaq earned this past season.
Duncan was exploited by the Suns in San Antonioís sweep, leading to questions about Duncanís game and his status in todayís game of athleticism.
Where once he was the focal point with the Spurs, Duncan is now a second option, threatening to become a third option.
And then thereís Kobe.
No player is more mentally tough than Bryant, whose physical toughness is often overshadowed by his late-game heroics.
Hereís a guy who continues to play through a broken finger on his shooting hand, the expected knee troubles that come with age and back pain.
He never complains and he seldom misses games.
His place in history became tarnished following that infamous rape allegation that resulted in litigation.
Heís so far removed from that incident in Colorado that itís time people focus on Bryant the basketball player and his place in history.
Assuming he stays healthy and assuming the Lakers maintain their level, the question must be posed: Is Kobe Bryant better than Michael Jordan?
Jordan left the game with six titles. He could have added two to his total had he not given up his jump shot for a shot at playing baseball amid all kinds of off-the-court issues that followed Jordan into retirement for the first time.
The fact remains another title gives Bryant five championships.
Maybe he wins two more before he retires, maybe he reaches six to match Jordanís haul.
Thereís an air of greatness that follows Bryant and air of anticipation when the ball is in his hands and a game must be won.
No player comes remotely close in matching Jordanís killer instinct than Bryant.
No player is as calculating and vindictive than Bryant, traits that characterized Jordan.
The Suns eliminated Bryantís Lakers in back-to-back post-seasons, beginning in 2006.
He was asked about his feelings on this yearís meeting.
ďWhat do you think?Ē he responded.
We think Bryant smells blood.
Right now, thereís no bigger shark in the NBA waters than Bryant.