Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and the impossible, intractable debate

We have seen it many times before. Men in various states of sobriety, fists wrapped around pints of cheap beer, arguing with the passion of Jefferson Smith over hypothetical matchups between past and present.

It can be a fun exercise of historical recollection, but it is also an impossible, intractable debate that can only be won when one side get either too drunk, or too fed up with the other.

Still, we are fascinated by its allure. Yesterday, millions took their YouTubes and Twitters to engage in a virtual tug of war over Michael Jordan’s assertion that he could line up the greatest of the great from past and present and emerge unscathed.

"…. other than Kobe Bryant because he steals all my moves."


Well, you can go to YouTube and find mashups of Kobe and Michael doing the exact same things on the court. Just like the debate, it is a fun lark that will stir up commenters and fanboys. In the end, though, Kobe Bryant, who plays the same position with the same ability, patterned his game after one of the all-time greats of his youth.  

Does Kevin McHale get a royalty for every up-and-under move on the post? Is Moses Malone due a footnote on drop-steps? Should Karl Malone and John Stockton get to do a “To Catch A Predator”-style “gotcha” show exposing tandems who execute pick-and-rolls?

It has been said one’s greatest strength is also one’s greatest weakness. Michael Jordan’s strength for his entire playing career was a chip surgically implanted on his shoulder at a very young age, maybe when he did not make the varsity team immediately in high school. Maybe it was before that. Whenever it was, it was the perpetual motion machine of motivation inside him that turned him into the G.O.A.T.  

Vincent Laforet/AFP/Washington PostThe problem with perpetual motion machines, though, is that they are perpetual (or they would be if they existed, but let us not drag the rules of physics into this. I’m rolling.).  

Jordan has no “off” switch. He cannot take the slightest of slights without setting out to decimate the slight-er. Like O.J. Mayo in the beginning of that clip, a fully grown, retired Jordan could not just teach a lesson and be done with it. He had to embarrass the kid and let it be known that his insolence would not be tolerated.

Or you can just look at his Hall of Fame induction speech, which was a 20-minute, basketball version of the Coming To America scene…

F you, F you, F you…. who’s next?

And so MJ was asked a question that his inner drive could not resist. He would play anyone and everyone one-on-one. Fire up the Delorean, set the dials, and let us do this before Scottie Pippen and Bill Cartwright disappear from the team picture in my pocket.  

If we could watch, we would be treated to an orgy of epic basketball where there would only be one sure winner: Us. Because there is no end to this intractable debate.

Jordan could beat LeBron, but LeBron could beat Jordan. They all could beat Jordan. And Jordan could beat them all. The acknowledgement of such does not diminish what any of them have accomplished, nor does it create a seismic shift that could reduce the NBA’s Mt. Rushmore to rubble.  

No, Jordan is more like the Gods of Greek mythology; insecure and vengeful despite their greatness and immortality.  He, like they, are imperfect deities, but deities nonetheless. His inner fire is easy to light, and once again it has given us wonderful fodder for our inebriated debates (along with a beautifully timed busting of Kobe’s balls), no matter how impossible and intractable those debates ultimately become.