I Wanna Be Like Mike: Kobe Bryant and Basketball as Art

For all intents and purposes, the verdict is unanimous: Kobe Bean Bryant is the closest anyone has come to matching the greatness of Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Professional basketball player Jamal Crawford, a contemporary of Bryant, once proclaimed him “this generation’s Michael Jordan,” while in an April 2013 tweet none other than Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson declared, “Laker Nation: Kobe is the closest thing to Michael Jordan that I have ever seen.” Though Jordan was atop the basketball world less than two decades ago and his professional career concluded finally in only 2003, Bryant—the swaggering, sometimes tongue-wagging six-foot-six-inch shooting guard—stands if not shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of all time, then close enough to feel the breeze of Captain Marvel’s wings, rarified air nonetheless.

As a matter of statistics, old school and analytic, the claim is difficult to refute. From the 1979–80 season through the present, Bryant and Jordan rank, respectively, one and two among shooting guards in total points, rebounds, and assists, though Bryant played over two hundred more games as well, while Jordan outperforms his progeny regarding points, rebounds, and assists per game averages. However, a FiveThirtyEight article assessing their performances between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-four—their overlapping years, considering Bryant entered the National Basketball Association at eighteen and Jordan returned from a second retirement at thirty-eight for two additional seasons—found the latter accumulated a better true shooting percentage (58.0 versus 55.6) and box plus/minus (+8.3 compared with +4.5), for example.[1] Of course, Jordan also bests Bryant in career scoring titles and regular season Most Valuable Player awards (ten to two and five to one, respectively), as well as championships with a count of six to five.[2]

The numerical arguments are clear, commonly known, and accessible as ideas and facts. But unpacking and analyzing the underpinnings of Bryant’s legacy and reputation necessitates a different framework. Basketball is fundamentally a mode of expression, which like others possesses a traceable and debatable lineage. As such, the approaches by which other artistic practices have been critiqued offer promising ways to conceptualize and examine basketball. Applying theories of art to basketball broadens the boundaries of discussion as well as the possibilities for understanding the sport itself. One must assess basketball as not simply a game, but as art, its participants as not exclusively athletes, but as artists capable of producing works as sublime and ripe for mythologizing as any painter, poet, or musician. Therefore, considerations of an athlete’s greatness have to include a second element: the measure of a man is not solely the sum of his accomplishments but should also consider the style of his game, its individuality, resemblances and homages to its forbearers, the genealogy of its jukes and fakes, and most importantly the contributions it makes to the lineage from which it sprang and simultaneously changed.

To conceive of sports as art is to ask something different of its participants. With sports, as in other areas of artistic practice, there exists inflexion points that reveal new creative and athletic possibilities, and these moments possess seminal figures, creators representative of their times. However, mere mannerisms must not be mistaken for transformations. Minor artists can be minor in their own recognizable ways. Great art is judged by the fashion and profundity with which it alters tradition. And an enduring work—one standing the proverbial test of time—is ultimately judged not by its contemporaries as a fundamental point of change, however, but by its descendants as such. The assessment is unending, and the truest significance is demonstrated by continued possession upon countless reappraisals. A lasting work of art, thusly, is a product of histories of which it is aware that also shapes an eventuality it may glimpse but can never fully anticipate. It is endlessly relevant. Our past is redefined by it, and our present is a creation of its effect.

In his “Conjectures on Original Composition,” English poet Edward Young posited the notion of there being two types of literary imitations, one consisting of originals and the other of imitators. For Young, the former “extend the republic of letters, and add a new province to its dominion” while the latter “only give us a sort of duplicates of what we had, possibly much better before.” Young pushed further, however, by arguing the class of writers he considered originals was composed of genius artists, whom he subdivided into two categories: infantine and adult, or more straightforwardly, genius that springs naturally and genius that has to be nursed. Moreover, he explained genius as such:

[They] not only rival the reputation of the great ancient authors, but also reduce the number of mean ones among the moderns. For when they enter subjects which have been in former hands, such is their superiority, that, like a tenth wave, they overwhelm, and bury in oblivion all that went before.…[3]

The necessity and aptness of viewing basketball through theories of art becomes clearer in this light. Genius, as understood by Young, encapsulates what is meant by transcendent greatness in sports. At the highest level of accomplishment, basketball greatness, or genius in the language of art, is epochal, a moment through which the very notions of before and after are simultaneously created and by which all others will be forever defined.

Although retrospection is an indispensable element of historical judgments, it is fair for one’s contemporaries to enter the debate well-acquainted with existing legacies and the criteria by which they and their successors will be appraised. With this fact in mind, undoubtedly over the past 30 years, over perhaps basketball’s entire history, the most influential figure has been Michael Jordan. This is not to say his influence and game arose from nothing, unaccounted for by history. Jordan himself inherited a game with boundaries that were expanded in large part by the breakthroughs of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird during the 1980s, both of whom reinvented the game in their own rights amid a bicoastal rivalry. Even today, passing the ball like Magic is considered among the highest compliments a basketball player could receive; and, though reductionist and ultimately unfair to Bird himself, the paradoxical kiss of death and greatest praise is for a white basketball player to be compared to Larry Legend, not to mention has name continues to be a byword for jump shooting excellence.[4] If one also considers Jordan’s game, particularly the flashier aspects most prevalent during the years leading up to his first retirement, numerous NBAers are clear antecedents to Jordan’s fancies of flight. With Elgin Baylor, for instance, his one-handed reversals, flip shots around the rim, and midair acrobatics were some of the earliest explorations of style that would become a hallmark of Jordan’s game. An undeniable precursor appeared as well with Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who took the contributions of those before him and added a sort of smoothness and grace of movement, which, when paired with his creativity, represented a step forward in the possibilities of basketball. And Jordan has cited David “Skywalker” Thompson, whose forty-eight-inch vertical leap and dunks have become lore, as a central figure in the development of his game.[5] “I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era,” Jordan said in his 1998 book, For the Love of the Game: My Story. “Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor, there would never have been a Michael Jordan,” he continued. “I evolved from them.”[6] With Jordan, the advances of his forebears coalesced, creating a phenomenon that was hitherto unknown. Watching footage of him leaping from one side of the basket to the other, for instance, seemingly suspended in midair for as long as he wished, before flipping the ball from an immense hand into the hoop, leaves the sensation of having seen the familiar defamiliarized. His game represents a point of demarcation. Without controversy, one could divide the game’s history into pre-Jordan and post-Jordan periods as no other athlete has played as central a role as he did and does. Through the experimentation of imitation, basketball experienced an apparent apotheosis. Mimicry, therefore, represents an important and unavoidable part of one’s basketball, i.e., artistic, development.

Revolutions take place at the frontiers of prior innovations, and these contours must be explored before breakthroughs are possible. It is on these terms by which Kobe Bryant, as the generally accepted heir to the legacy of Jordan, must be assessed. The contemporary paradox that he belongs in the same pantheon as Jordan but simultaneously exists in the man’s shadow cannot stand, as the former would constitute an evolution in the game of basketball while the latter would be an accomplishment of lesser note.

Bryant was not the first to be given the moniker “The Next Michael Jordan”—the basketball graveyard is littered with the sneakers of the likes of Jerry Stackhouse and Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner—simply the only man to meet and surpass the hype.[7] This much is inarguable. Unlike those before him, Bryant not only compiled historically impressive individual statistics but team accomplishments as well, doing it with panache, the element of style that causes one to proverbially jump off the screen. Early in his career particularly, there appeared to be the components for Bryant to usher in and represent an era in which the game’s creative possibilities were expanded and for a basketball player to accomplish something “Bryant-like” would perhaps someday be akin to being “Bird-like” or “Magic-like.”

Take the 1998 NBA All-Star Game: it was 19-year-old Bryant’s first All-Star Game appearance and widely believed to be Jordan’s last. In his second season playing professional basketball, Bryant was the youngest All-Star in NBA history, and much of the game’s buildup concerned the matchup between him and Jordan. By this point in his career, Jordan no longer possessed the above-the-rim athleticism that was a hallmark of his youth. However, following his first retirement, his game had been redefined and retooled. A stronger, smarter player, he played more frequently in the post, closer to the rim with his back to the basket. He, as well, had developed a devastatingly accurate fadeaway jump shot, a move that became irrevocably linked with his name, along with an array of countermoves to elude overcommitting defenders.  Bryant, however, was years away from reaching his prime, and his game still possessed a sort of anxious-to-prove-itself rambunctiousness. While Jordan guiled and jump-shot his way to the game’s MVP award, Bryant offered peeks of what could be on the horizon. During the game’s third quarter, he intercepted a pass along the sideline, and then, nearing his own basket, faked a behind-the-back pass in which he took the ball around his back with a single dribble, culminating with a perfectly executed right-handed hook shot as he went out of bounds. “I’m not sure if he traveled there or if he had some kind of violation,” said play-by-play man Bob Costas, excitement raising the volume of his voice, “because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that move before.” Basketball was seemingly on the verge of something new. Bryant and a generation of basketball players—Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan to name a few—had entered the league, all of whom had come of age with Jordan as basketball’s standard-bearer.[8] From this group came All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, but ultimately no one, not even Bryant, would fundamentally expand the boundaries of how the game is played.

That Bryant patterned his game on Jordan is common knowledge. Writing in his 2013 book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Phil Jackson, the only person to coach both men, said Bryant had not only “mastered many of Jordan’s moves” but had gone a step further and “affected many of MJ’s mannerisms as well.”[9] Bryant has also spoken of himself and Jordan as being “cut from the same cloth,” while Jordan has said Bryant stole his moves. The key details, however, are not that Bryant modeled himself after Jordan or that comparisons between the two existed. Rather, it is the nature of the comparisons and that they have not only persisted but have seemingly multiplied as Bryant nears the end of his career. In looking back at his accomplishments, his game is judged by its proximity to Jordan, as an object of greatness in that it most closely approximates what is thought to be the greatest basketball game of all time. As much as anything, Bryant’s legacy appears to be an appendage to Jordan’s. If Bryant’s career is interpreted as one would an artist, this shortcoming becomes clearer. In developing a voice, or game in basketball parlance, that is unique, one must eventually reach a place at which the weight of the differences with his predecessors is greater than the weight of those similarities. While no one creates himself from nothing, there is a minority of great artists who give the impression they have done so. As in every artist there are the “moves” of a predecessor, whether Bryant stole Jordan’s moves is secondary to the salient fact: in the full bloom of Bryant’s artistic maturity, such a statement, jocular or otherwise, could be reasonably made.

In his aesthetic theory, sixteenth century Chinese painter and theorist Dong Qichang explicated a notion in which painters experience two stages of development. In the first phase, the artist masters the styles of his predecessors. And only after this has been accomplished will he emerge with a style that is his own, which, in turn, the successors of those innovations will study. On the topic, Dong said:

Even a great master of painting must start from imitation. In time there will be virtuosity and with virtuosity will come spontaneity. Once the method is mastered and digested by the painter he can go in and out of the method at will with his own variations and he can be completely free from his models.[10]

This is the predicament of Bryant and the implied truth of his legacy: an inability to marshal his study of the masters with production of artwork that is distinctly his. And with his career nearly over, the promise of 1998 will go unfulfilled.

However, there is an NBAer who may in fact represent the next step forward the game did not take with Bryant. In the autumn of 2003, LeBron James played his first professional basketball game. Like Bryant, the 18-year-old James had also gone directly from high school to the pros. Unlike Bryant, though, James’s impact was near-instantaneous, and his game quickly exhibited dimensions that would come to be known as unmistakably his.

While Jordan and Bryant played the game in a more or less balletic fashion, lithe and long-limbed, moving about the floor with seeming ease, perhaps the most visually identifiable component of James’s play at first glance is its reliance upon his size and strength. He stands six feet eight and outweighs Jordan and Bryant by dozens of pounds. This distinction is important because in judging Bryant to have been the heir to Jordan, it is his resemblance to the latter that has been cited as the strongest evidence, his physique being an unavoidable factor. That being the case, James’s dissimilarity has been an insurmountable strike against him. However, assessing James as an artist, one sees it is he who has expanded the territory on which the game is played more than anyone during the post-Jordan period. With him, the game is played in a 360-degree fashion. The basketball player explores each facet of the game, examining the potential of every aspect to influence the competition’s ebb and flow and outcome.

As was the case with Jordan and Bryant, James did not invent the style of his game himself.[11] Bird and Oscar Robertson, among others, can lay claims to having traversed the grounds James has made his, though like Jordan, James’s seeming mastery of basketball’s three essential constituents—scoring, passing, and rebounding—can leave the impression no one has played the game that way before.[12] In fact, Robertson, who is widely considered one of the best, if not the best all-around player in history, has said James is “in a class by himself.” Watching James excel at various parts of the game depending upon what the moment calls for, one glimpses metaphorically Dong’s example of a painter going in and out of the method at will with his own variations. In a manner different from that of Jordan, the game experienced a generational step forward, though ostensibly overlooked in the popular imagination because it differs from what was wanted and expected. But the dynamism of James’s game poses two for now unanswerable questions: Will history’s memory at some point replace Bryant at Jordan’s hip with James? And, more provocatively, given the difficulty of envisioning someone equally or surpassing the combination of his physical stature and skillset, whether that same historical judgment will come to consider James as basketball’s preeminent artist?

It was the early 1990s when sports beverage company Gatorade debuted its “Be Like Mike” advertising campaign. The commercial featured lyrics and a melody as saccharine and inoffensive as the company’s products:

Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could be like Mike
Like Mike
Oh, if I could be like Mike
Be like Mike, be like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move
I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could be like Mike
I wanna be, I wanna be
Like Mike
Oh, if I could be like Mike

In assessing the career and legacy of Bryant, there are two defining characteristics. He is, firstly, a tremendous basketball player whose individual and team accomplishments literally tower above nearly every man to have ever played the game. Upon his retirement, when he can offer no more proof, his achievements will stand as affirmation of the fact. Secondly, however, the nature of this greatness is derivativeness, an unmistakable shortcoming if Bryant is evaluated artistically. “Those who study the old masters and do not introduce some changes are as if closed in by a fence,” Dong said. “If one imitates the models too closely, one is often still further removed from them.”[13] In this sense, being “like Mike” represented a fundamental misunderstanding of what would constitute greatness on the part of Bryant, if greatness is defined as separating oneself from his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers-to-be. Mike-ness already accomplished, following in his footsteps meant in actuality breaking from his work and discovering a new pathway, but with Bryant this was not the case. What we are left with, however, is not Bryant’s failure as a basketball player per se, rather his failure as an artist.

[1] A box score­-based metric, box plus/minus uses information from players’ box scores to assess their performances relative to league averages on a per-100-possession basis with zero being the league average. True shooting percentage measures players’ shooting efficiencies by taking into account field goals, free throws, and three-point field goals.

[2] Jordan also earned six NBA Finals MVP awards while Bryant garnered two.

[3] Edward Young, “Conjectures on Original Composition” (1759).

[4] Though it can be easily overlooked, one cannot overstate the force of Magic’s and Bird’s influence that their names have become synonymous with excellence in elements as central to basketball as passing and shooting more than two decades after their primes.

[5] The power of Thompson’s influence on Jordan was so great Jordan chose him to be his presenter at his 2009 introduction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

[6] Michael Jordan, For the Love of the Game: My Story, ed. Mark Vancil (New York: Crown, 1998).

[7] During January 1996, the first full season following the return from his 1993 retirement, Jordan and the Bulls faced off against the Philadelphia 76ers and first-round pick Jerry Stackhouse. The previous summer Stackhouse had apparently gotten the better of Jordan during some pickup games and said as much prior to the teams’ January 1996 matchup. Jordan, who after the game said he didn’t want to make it “mano a mano,” scored forty-eight points in a Bulls 120–93 win, while Stackhouse finished the game with only thirteen points.

[8] Like Bryant, the 1998 All-Star Game was Duncan’s first.

[9] Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (New York: Penguin, 2013), 216.

[10] Mary Tregear, Chinese Art (Thames & Hudson, 1997), 166-167.

[11] During 2012, LeBron James revealed that his cell phone wallpaper was a Photoshopped picture of Jordan guarding him, such was Jordan’s influence on his development.

[12] Oscar Robertson, in fact, remains the only professional basketball player to average a triple double for an entire season, having done so during the 1961–62 campaign with 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, and 11.4 apg.

[13] Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 88.

I Wanna Be Like Mike: Kobe Bryant and Basketball as Art was originally published in The Blackstone Review in December 2015.