O'Donnell: Kobe and Michael -- Two images who should stay forever young
When Michael Jordan entered the NBA, he was laden with tempered expectations.
He wasn't going to be the next Bill Russell.
Nor the next Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar either.
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West?
Because of stylistic considerations of that age, probably not.
If there was any exemplar, it was Julius Erving.
Flash and sky with breakthrough improvisational skills that could transcend Russell's classic description of the game as "a combination of war and ballet."
But for a Bulls organization so accustomed to heartbreak and doldrums, even that modeling seemed so unlikely.
Twelve years later, in 1996, when Kobe Bryant arrived, his high target was perfectly clear.
It was Michael himself.
No one else. Nothing else mattered.
Come close and you will be one of the reigning names in the history since Dr. Naismith discarded the peaches and kept the baskets.
That Bryant exited his earthly existence Sunday with his name so comfortably and credibly fitting into any comparison to Jordan is magnificent tribute.
In the end, as a basketball player and a theatricalist, he wasn't quite Michael.
But who was?
And how many others came so close?
In the end, Kobe Bryant was a sophisticated man who was blessed with extraordinary athletic skills, a singular youthful focus and a gifted mind that was deep in the evolutionary extension of realizing its own outer limits.
The 2015 poem he wrote that inspired his Academy Award-winning animated short film "Dear Basketball" initially read as so eloquently elegiac, it had the vision and meter of a very wise, heavy, grateful soul.
To read it again on a Sunday night hollowed by tragedy was to invite what Aeschylus called, "The pain which cannot forget, falling drip by drip upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
"Awful" is not a word found in the run-ups to icon of either Jordan or Bryant.
The first extended conversation with Jordan -- in October 1984 -- led to a chuckleable interim conclusion:
However many brothers and sisters this fellow had in Wilmington, N.C, at some point early on, it was made quite evident in the household that this self-assured lad was "The Chosen One."
Bryant gleaned his own immutable self-belief through very different channeling.
His basketball pedigree was textured and not just because of father Joe Bryant.
"Jellybean" was an NBA journeyman whose career peaked with a run alongside Erving, Doug Collins and George McGinnis on the Philadelphia 76ers.
Those Sixers actually led Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals 2-0 before full-throttle Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and Jack Ramsay's free-flow kicked in and the Trailblazers won four straight.
But Kobe Bryant's basketball genes also extended to his mother Pam's side.
Uncle Chubby Cox was a cornerstone in a fleeting basketball renaissance at the University of San Francisco that would later include Bill Cartwright and Quintin Dailey.
Cox was a late draft pick of the Bulls who never made it out of training camp in 1978 and wound up playing overseas for years.
Joe Bryant extended his career in Europe.
His father's long stay in the Italian League made Kobe "an internationalist" long before globalization was fashionable in the NBA.
Now, in the days ahead, the life and times of Kobe Bryant will touch deification, and what's wrong with that for a while?
He maxed out his enormous basketball potential through will, work and want and showed ongoing growth as a father, a husband and the notably creative spirit within.
He also enjoyed the patronization of a patriarchal Lakers organization that enabled him to spend his full 20-year pro career with the same team.
Bulls classicists can only wonder: Had Jordan been granted the same sort of harmonic convergence, how many more championships would he have won?
But all now regarding Kobe Bryant, far too soon, embraces postscript.
Nine people -- including two 13-year-old girls -- lost their lives Sunday in a sudden helicopter crash that serves to underscore the fragility of it all.
The ultimate cover charge for life is a rendezvous with death.
And it's collected at the end.
For those who cheered him or simply appreciated his determined artistry, there will be no end to the basketball spirit and joy of Kobe Bryant.
And in their minds, he will stay forever young.
And oh so close to touching Michael.
• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.