No other man possessed the greater perspective regarding the endless debate on Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Phil Jackson used to go to great lengths at avoiding the topic, out of reverence for both of the stars he coached in separate stints with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. But he hardly holds back in his upcoming book, “Eleven Rings,” co-written by Hugh Delehanty and available next Tuesday.
“Even Jordan has said that Kobe is the only player who can be compared to him, and I have to agree,” Jackson wrote. “Both men have an extraordinary competitive drive and are virtually impervious to pain. Michael and Kobe have both played some of their best games under crippling conditions – from food poisoning to broken bones – that would sideline lesser mortals for weeks. Their incredible resilience has made the impossible possible, allowing each of them to make game-turning shots with packs of defenders hanging all over them. That said, their styles are different.”
Still, it’s clear through Jackson’s 339-page book who he’s favoring.
“Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe. He loved hanging out with his teammates and security guards, playing cards, smoking cigars, and joking around,” Jackson said in the book, which was obtained in advance by this newspaper. “Kobe is different. He was reserved as a teenager, in part because he was younger than the other players and hadn’t developed strong social skills in college. When Kobe first joined the Lakers, he avoided fraternizing with his teammates. But his inclination to keep to himself shifted as he grew older. Increasingly, Kobe put more energy into getting to know the other players, especially when the team was on the road.”
Early in Bryant’s career, it seemed he felt otherwise.
Jackson recalled Bryant telling teammates he wanted to win 10 NBA championships. Jackson also described Bryant as “hell bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game.” So much that Jackson revealed Bryant said in his first meeting with Jordan, “You know I can kick your [butt] one on one.”
Jackson favored nearly every category to Jordan over Bryant, and the reasons went beyond the championship discrepancy. Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98), while Bryant won five titles with the Lakers (2000-2002, 2009-2010). Jackson considered Jordan a better defender, a more accurate shooter and more able to get more out of his teammates.
“Michael was more likely to break through his attackers with his power and strength, while Kobe often tries to finesse his way through mass pileups, Jackson wrote. “Michael was stronger, with bigger shoulders and a sturdier frame. He also had large hands that allowed him to control the ball better and make subtle fakes. Kobe is more flexible – hence, his favorite nickname, “Black Mamba.'”
There was one exception where Bryant had the edge.
Jackson praised Bryant for treating his body “like a finely tuned European sports car,” while saying Jordan was “less regimented” and noted his joy for cigars and wine.
Jackson often spoke in reverential terms toward Bryant, expressing how their relationship evolved over the years. That contrasted when Jackson portrayed Bryant as “uncoachable” in his book “The Last Season,” which reflected on his time coaching the Lakers in the 2003-04 campaign, which ended in the Lakers losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Afterwards, Jackson was let go and the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat.
Still, Jackson doesn’t hold back on anything regarding Bryant. For one, Jackson said he urged late owner Jerry Buss to keep O’Neal and trade Bryant instead. He also doesn’t backtrack on comments he made about Bryant in the 2003-04 season regarding the difficulties in coaching him. Jackson even admitted that Bryant’s sexual assault charge in 2003, which was ultimately dropped, “cracked open an old wound” because his daughter was an assault victim while dating an athlete in college.
“Brooke expected me to get angry and make her feel protected. Instead I suppressed my rage — as I’d been conditioned to do during childhood by my parents … it left her feeling alone and unsupported,” Jackson said. “The Kobe incident triggered all my unprocessed anger and tainted my perception of him. … It distorted my view of Kobe throughout the 2003-04 season. No matter what I did to extinguish it, the anger kept smoldering in the background.”
The two patched up their relationship though after Jackson rejoined the Lakers for the 2005-06 season. Bryant apparently understood Jackson’s tough love.
“Phil had two alpha males that he had to get going in the same direction,” Bryant said in an interview with the book. “And the best way to do that was to ride my butt because he knew that’s how he could get Shaq to do what he wanted him to do. That was fine with me, but don’t act like I don’t know what’s going on.”
Jackson defended Bryant when he made trade demands in 2007, frustrated over three underachieving seasons with a barren roster.
“No question, losing Kobe would be a blow to the organization and to me personally,” Jackson wrote.
But he still saw Bryant having a long way to go to reach Jordan.
“One of the biggest differences between the two stars from my perspective was Michael’s superior skills as a leader,” Jackson said. “Though at times he could be hard on his teammates, Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence. Kobe had a long way to go before he could make that claim. He talked a good game, but he’d yet to experience the cold truth of leadership in his bones, as Michael had.”
That dynamic evolved after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008 from the Memphis Grizzlies. That acquisition spurred three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and two NBA championships.
Jackson also noticed that coincided with Bryant integrating himself more with teammates off the court and passing them the ball more often. Such growth set up a sentimental feeling for Jackson when he hugged Bryant after the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in five games in the 2009 NBA Finals.
“This was our moment of triumph, a moment of total reconciliation that had been seven years long in coming,” Jackson said. “The look of pride and joy in Kobe’s eyes made all the pain we’d endured in our journey together worth it.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org