Since Michael Jordan's final title in 1998, NBA superstars have suffered mightily from what Harold Bloom termed "anxiety of influence." The Jordan myth—a morality play about how dedication, respect for the game, and loving your parents makes you the undisputed greatest person in the world—has stifled an entire generation of great players. But, as Jordan's most talented immediate successor, Kobe has been uniquely warped. He's plagiarized MJ's game so expertly that, in many ways, he's ahead of the master's curve—Kobe is stronger than the 27-year-old Jordan and has a deadlier outside shot. But for all his miraculous skills, Kobe is painfully bad at mythmaking. Since he's a Jordan-like talent, Kobe clearly thinks that he's entitled to the Jordan mythology, but he doesn't have any of Jordan's charisma or imagination. As melodramatic and managed as Jordan's career was, there was some authentic core—it was original and seemed to mean something. Kobe exists entirely within quotation marks.
Jordan was a master of pantomime. He built his empire largely on iconic celebratory gestures: the tongue-wag, the splay-legged fist pump, the impish "Even I marvel at my own divinity" shrug. Kobe's dramatic gestures are all either borrowed or embarrassing. After his game-winner over the Suns in Game 4, Kobe held his fist frozen in front of him exactly like MJ used to. But when he got clotheslined by Raja Bell in the next game, there was no script to work from: You could almost see him trying to remember if Come Fly With Me had any footage of Jordan getting horse-collared by Joe Dumars. Kobe finally improvised with a sassy hand-gesture shuffle. He wiped a pile of imaginary dirt off of his shoulder for a while, then added a schoolmarm finger waggle while making the least convincing tough-guy face I've ever seen. It was like a high-school production of West Side Story.
The Phoenix crowd's Game 7 chant of "Kobe sucks" brought on another round of awkward posturing. Kobe cupped his hand to his ear, Hulk Hogan-style, and held it long enough for TNT's cameras to swivel and zoom; then he nodded sarcastically with his lips pursed for a good 10 seconds. It was supposed to look cocky and defiant but came off as empty petulant theater.
I will add this: Kobe had a stupendous season. I mean, 81 points. 81 points.
But being a deadly scorer is more common than you might think. 81 is 81, but if you look at the next strata--people in the 50s and 60s--you see lots of all-time greats (Wilt, Elgin Baylor, the Ice Man, Pistol Pete).
And you also see Rick Barry, Joe Fulks, Tracy McGrady, Karl Malone, Antawn Jamison, Bernard King, Purvis Short, Jerry Stackhouse, Adrian Dantley, Calvin Murphy, Glen Rice, Jermaine O'Neal, Damon Stoudamire, Alex English, Allan Houston, Chris Webber, and Tom Chambers.
Let me repeat: Tom Chambers.
No disrespect: Every one of those guys is a wonderful player. I'd kill to have any of them--including Chambers--on the Sixers. I should be so lucky.
But none of them is or ever was a Great player. Putting up big numbers in an NBA game isn't as specialized a skill as you might think. At any given time, there are more than a handful of guys in the league capable of going for 50+, and not all of these guys would make your all-star team, let alone your all-time team.
The greats are the ones who do it when it counts most. Jordan averaged 33.4 ppg (and 6.4 rebounds) in the playoffs. Kobe is averages 22.9 ppg (and 4.9 rebounds).
Update: Galley Friend J.E. writes in defense of Alex English,
English was a great player. Not even debatable. Don't blame him for playing with stiffs and therefore not having the opportunity to shine in memory--that is, the playoffs.
I never saw English play, but I trust J.E.--English goes into my Great list.