Basketball fans can be dumber than a box of anvils. "Where will
we ever find another Michael Jordan?" they wail. If they'd only
stop whining, they'd see someone right under their noses who
could wind up better than Jordan.

I know, I know. I'm on crack. I'm a twit. I sleep with farm
animals. But just listen for a second.

At 24, Kobe Bryant has three rings. At that age, Jordan had zero.
At 24, Kobe has better all-around court sense, a better J and,
unthinkably, even more madly creative mid-air Gumbyness than
Jordan did. At 24, Kobe is hitting 38.5% of his treys; Jordan was
shooting 18%. Over the last four weeks Kobe was on a
mind-warping, pupil-popping, scorched-earth tear during which he
scored 35 or more points in 13 straight games. Jordan hadn't done
that at 24. Come to think of it, Jordan still hasn't done that.

"He's the best player in the game right now," Utah guard Mark
Jackson said last week, after Kobe went for 40 points to help the
Shaqless Lakers beat the Jazz. "He's playing basketball that's as
good as I've seen in my career." Of course, Jackson's only been
in the league for 16 years.

So why can't America embrace Kobe and his ozone-piercing
potential? Why can't they realize that falling in love with Kobe
doesn't mean breaking up with Michael? I mean, what's not to
love?

Here's a young man who speaks fluent Italian, is married and has
a child, and never shows up in the back of a squad car. Here's a
pro who works out eight hours a day in the off-season, who one
summer wouldn't go home until he'd made 1,000 jumpers a day.
Here's a young god who's runway handsome, GQ cool and Eagle Scout
nice.

In Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals in San Antonio
last May, he blew up for 12 points in the fourth quarter to beat
the Spurs. He was seconds from going live with NBC when he saw a
small boy crying over the loss. He left the interviewer, went
over and hugged the kid. Yet all anybody wants to do is line him
up against Jordan and make sure he loses. Kobe's getting sick of
it, and I don't blame him.

"People want to compare me with Michael in his prime," he says,
"and that's unfair. I don't think I'm in my prime yet. I think a
player's prime is, like, 26 to 30. I'm only 24. But that's all
they want to talk about. They're not saying, 'Kobe worked really
hard at getting better at this.' Or, 'This is what I appreciate
about Kobe.' It's always what I do in relation to Michael. Like,
they say my competitiveness came from watching Michael. It never
crossed their minds that I've been like this since I was five."

Savor this kid. Wallow in his starshine. Be stupefied,
mind-boggled, brain-bent. He's writing his legend right under our
noses. Beats his man left-hand dribble, skies baseline and
flushes over Yao Ming? Catches a long outlet, goes behind his
back to lose a Denver Nugget and 360 slams? Driving the baseline,
takes off outside the paint, loses Latrell Sprewell in midair and
reverse dunks on the far side of the rim? And that's just in the
last three weeks.

You want to argue? Bring it.

Jordan never had a Shaq. True, and Kobe never had a Hall of Fame
swingman like Scottie Pippen. Or a rebound-munching forward as
Dennis Rodman was in his prime. You think he wouldn't be handy to
have around? Why, yes, Dennis, I would like to shoot again,
thanks!

Jordan won 10 scoring titles. Kobe's got zilch. I watched Kobe
score 56 in three quarters against Memphis last season--the man
could win a scoring title wearing Muppet slippers. But many
nights he has to put his ego in a jar to keep Shaq-Fu happy and
well-fed with points. Plus, Kobe has the burden of handling the
rock an awful lot--more than Jordan. "I'm not saying it's
harder," says Kobe, "but it consumes a lot more energy, having
those little guards crawling on you all the time. It's definitely
more running."

Kobe doesn't D-up like Jordan. True, but he's learning. He's
increased his steals from 1.48 a game last season to 2.24 this
season. He's averaging a career-best 7.0 rebounds, too. Jordan
only beat that once. He's got the Bally's body at 24 that Jordan
didn't build until he was 30.

I don't see six rings on Kobe's fingers. Let's say Kobe retires
when Jordan will, at 40. That means he'd play 23 seasons. You
think Kobe can't get four more rings in the next 16 seasons?
"Seven rings, eight rings, nine rings," Kobe says, "I don't care.
I just want to win. Every year."

Yeah, well, the world will never love Kobe as much as Jordan.
True, but maybe that's because Michael came first. If the order
had been reversed, would Kobe have the IMAX movies, the jingles
and the shoes? Would Michael be the one wearing Kobe's throwback
at the All-Star Game?

They said nobody would ever punk Ruth's numbers. Then came Aaron.
They said nobody would go lower than Nicklaus. Then came Tiger.
Just roll the possibility around on your tongue for a second:
Kobe Bryant could end up the greatest player in NBA history.

"Ooh," says Kobe, "you just gave me goose bumps."

The feeling is mutual.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Why can't America realize that falling in love with Kobe doesn't
mean breaking up with Michael?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)