Originally published in SLAM 170

by Gabriel Bump / @GabrielJBump

I was 4 years old when Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement. Too young to fully understand what a “comeback” actually meant, yet the excitement surrounding his return is something that never left me.

More than Jordan playing, I remember seeing a close-up image of him on a magazine called SLAM. He was screaming. He looked angry. It scared me. From what I’d heard from my dad, MJ was supposedly the good guy.

As a South Side Chicago kid, I heard people talk about Jordan as if his return and he himself were something biblical in nature. Still, that image of his face on that magazine cover—yelling!—stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it, could not un-imagine it. Growing up, because of that picture, Michael Jordan scared the shit out of me.

The next four years lessened my fears. I’d gotten older, and like most everyone else, became totally caught up in Jordan’s “resurrection” and the second three-peat. I became less fearful of Jordan because the images I began to see were of him smiling on the back pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, soaked in champagne, a cigar in his mouth, holding up the number of fingers that equaled the titles he’d just won.

He wasn’t my hero. But I understood. Never my God. But I got it.

My biracial upbringing made—allowed—me to have a more open mind in how I internalized things. My parents made me look into everything as opposed to just at them like everyone else around me seemed to do. They made me neutral. The blind and unconditional adoration people had for Jordan allowed me to wonder if there might be someone else out there who should have been receiving the same lofty praise. I used to say to myself, “He can’t be the only one.”

Kobe Bryant didn’t scare me. He reminded me of the Jordan I’d hear my father and his friends talk about but not the one I saw, not the scowling, bald veteran. Bryant seemed reckless and fearless. He played like he had something to prove but didn’t give a crap at the same time. I wasn’t more comfortable with Kobe because he was more familiar, it was a feeling I got from watching Kobe that I didn’t get when watching Jordan. Greatness by another definition, I suppose.

In middle school by then, my teachers placed books in front of me and told me what “greatness” was. Lord of the Flies. War of the Worlds. The Outsiders. Dune. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to define greatness on my own.

Around that time, I distinctly remember Kobe being on the cover of a magazine that looked like SLAM but was different. Something called KICKS. I remember the cover line: “Unlike Mike.” Exactly how I felt about him. It was like these people were reading my mind! And for the first time I saw Kobe in words.

KICKS: How badly do you want to be the number one option? I mean, I know you do eventually, but…

Kobe Byrant: But see, right now I’m comfortable being the number one option in the fourth. You know, you just kinda wait, put it in cruise control—you don’t attack, you pick your spots—bam, bam, bam. That two minutes shows up on the clock [laughs] all right, let’s go. Just give me the ball.

KICKS: Does it matter how far you’re down?

KB: The deeper the deficit, the more fun it is, sometimes. Really. Once you’re able to pull your team out of that kind of situation, your teammates start looking at you like, “Come on, man, pull us out, let’s get it goin’.” And those are the types of feelings I love.

I kept hearing how Kobe wasn’t the next Mike. I thought the same, but it was getting harder to tell. He’d basically called almost losing “fun.” That’s how I read into it. I believed that while everyone was taking basketball pilgrimages to the sacred land of “Jordan,” I entertained the idea that maybe, just maybe, the future of basketball was a loner from Pennsylvania by way of Europe.

The further I immersed myself in the debate, the more basketball writing I devoured. I started reading a different set of classics: Rick Telander stories in Sports Illustrated. Lacy Banks in the Chicago Sun-Times. The Breaks of The Game by David Halberstam. Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules.

Then Colorado hit. Yes, that Colorado. And Kobe landed back on the cover of SLAM. The cover was dark, just like the situation. I picked up the issue. Read the story twice. It was written by Chicago’s own Scoop Jackson. It talked about the possibility of Kobe never playing basketball again and the possibilities of the game being taken away from him, and him being taken away from us. It was a dark, dark story. It scared the shit out of me.

But I couldn’t stop reading SLAM. To be honest, it made me look at basketball writing (and writing in general) in a totally different way. The NOYZ section was different than what was in all other sports magazines, the letters to the editor section was brilliant and clever, the way the people at SLAM spoke about basketball was more of a voice than words on paper.

It also was also where I first heard of and read about LeBron James. When LeBron was drafted, one week before Kobe’s incident in  Colorado, I’d known all about him by reading his basketball diaries in SLAM. I had the cover of he and Sebastian Telfair’s “Takeover” on my wall. So by the time ESPN was televising his high school games, I knew about him. By the time Sports Illustrated put him on the cover calling him “The Chosen One,” I was already locked in.

LeBron was the only player who took my mind off of what could happen to Kobe. He was of my generation (a little older) and I could relate to him, but I couldn’t fall in love with him like everyone else seemed to be doing.

“The greatest high school basketball player ever?”

My mother’s from New York, her side of the family still lives in Harlem, and if they followed basketball the way I did, they’d be the first to say to me: “Gabriel, there was a book and a Spike Lee film about Stephon Marbury’s high school career.” A reminder not to be suckered into the LeBron James hype. At least, not so fast.

Yet, LeBron became my backup plan.

My conundrum was internal. The more the world loved LeBron, the more I tended to drift the opposite way. Kobe got past all his personal demons, finally got rid of Shaq, was dropping 81 and outscoring the Mavs in three quarters. Yet, LeBron was the second coming of Michael Jordan?

If anyone was “unlike Mike,” it was LeBron as far as I was concerned. More than anything, he was the next Magic Johnson or the remixed Karl Malone. Everyone seemed to be giving him so much, so soon. And every time I looked up, he was back on the cover of SLAM.

But the more I read, the more I learned to appreciate him. As much as SLAM had become the voice, it became his voice. From that, my apprehension lessened and the jaded gate surrounding the basketball GOAT discussion unlocked.

It was the thread between the three of them that sewed it up for me. Jordan, Bryant, James. Three kings who overlapped one another to capture the fascination of a society hell-bent on hero worshipping. From each of them, I learned more about myself. Not just in the ways they played, but in their stories, or more appropriately, their mythologies.

It led me to a realization that as you both grow with a sport and grow up at the same time, there is always someone who is going to be put in contention, by the masses, for the throne. It doesn’t matter what the throne is or who holds ownership of it; there will be someone anointed to replace the person whose time has past.

I ended up playing soccer in high school (too small to play basketball seriously, but pretty big on the soccer field). I devoted myself to the game, so I’ve seen it happen in the beautiful sport the same way it happened in basketball. Pele to Ronaldinho to Messi was much the same. The Michael to Kobe to LeBron torch/throne passing was nothing unique, or exclusive, to American basketball, or the NBA. Basketball’s torchbearers, however, had a bible, and prophets, that documented their stories: SLAM Magazine, Tony G., Scoop, Russ, Ryan, Ben, Lang and the whole crew.

Twenty years. An eternal run. Who will follow LeBron? As an adult, I now know why Jordan was yelling, I know why Kobe’s life was so dark, I understand the LeBron hype. I can read SLAM void of adolescent fear. I read it to further discover what the game of basketball really means. I can read it and understand the competitive fire that makes a man yell, forces a man to make serious judgment issues and makes us crave the next “great one.” I am no longer scared.

Gabriel Bump is a writer for tehomedia.com.

Related:
SLAM’s 20th anniversary issue is on sale now!
A bunch of NBA players speak about their SLAM cover experiences
SLAM Basketball Evangelist Rick Telander looks back