Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. I didn't include a specific number because that's not what this is about, but he's up there. He is also, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most polarizing presence in all of basketball. The Kobe Haters lambast him for everything from selfish play to his poor moral choices of years past. The latest trend is to label all of the changes that he's made (to his game, to his personality, to his interactions with teammates) as fake. On the other side of the coin, the Kobe Lovers defend him with religious zeal, often lumping anyone who has the smallest criticism of their hero amongst the "Haters" category. Thus, opinions surrounding Kobe Bryant tend to be pretty black and white, because any shade of gray is inevitably forced towards one end of the spectrum. It's easy to figure out why people love Kobe. The majority are Lakers fans who simply adore their favorite team's star, and the rest love him because of his success, his game, or because of his frequent offseason trips to China. But why is the Hate side of the spectrum so large?
I'm not saying there aren't reasons to dislike Kobe. He has done plenty of things that could cause people to view him negatively. For one, he's been successful, and there is always a certain level of jealousy attached to such things. However, Kobe has also done plenty on his own to encourage people to dislike him. He has acted selfishly in the past. He has treated teammates poorly. He has been accused of using games to deliver messages, both to other players and to his own team/coaches. Whether you place the blame on him for Shaq's departure from the Lakers or not, he played a major role in a bad situation. Phil Jackson even said he was "uncoachable", although I'm guessing PJ would back off that statement now. And Kobe did get himself involved in the nightmare that was Vail, Colorado. So, there are a lot of reasons to dislike Kobe, if one chooses to focus on them. The question is: Why do so many people make that choice?
This is where Michael Jordan comes in. Michael Jordan is, by consensus, the greatest player of all time. He was also, until recently, one of the least polarizing presences in the game of basketball. There are very few people in this world who dislike or hate Michael Jordan. I'm sure there were plenty of people who didn't like him in their time, but most of that enmity was of the jealousy inspired type, and it went away as soon as Jordan stopped dominating on the court. After he retired for real (sort of) in 1998, any dislike for him seemed to go out the window, and he turned into a kind of basketball demi-god. I could be wrong, but I doubt very much that Kobe Bryant will receive that same sort of warm reception from the general NBA public outside of Los Angeles once he hangs it up. This has nothing to do with Jordan's place as the GOAT, and whether Kobe will come close to challenging that title or not by the end of his career. There are simply too many people who dislike Kobe for too many reasons, and many of those people's opinions will not change just because Bryant is no longer an active player. The next question is: Why doesn't MJ have that same negative following?
Michael Jordan has done many of the same things people dislike Kobe for. He treated teammates poorly at times, the same way that Kobe has. He once punched two teammates, which is a far worse teammate interaction than Kobe has ever had. He ran off Doug Collins the same way Kobe is accused of running off Shaq and Phil Jackson. I'm not old enough to have watched a lot of Jordan's early years, but all the stats point to Jordan having similarly "selfish" play. Jordan's lifetime usage is higher than Kobe's, and his assists are about the same. Statistically, there isn't much difference between the two in terms of determining "selfish" basketball. Jordan had a serious off-the-court problem during his career as well (gambling), and while I'm not coming close to saying that gambling and being accused of rape are the same thing, they are both notable issues that a "hater" could latch on to as a validation of their hate. Jordan even walked away from the game (or was pushed because of the gambling, if you believe the conspiracy theorists), and if Kobe had followed the same path, I'm sure there would be people who would latch onto that as another reason to dislike the man. Despite all of this, Jordan never had a negative following even closely resembling the one that Kobe has. Why?
All of these questions have the same answer: The Internet. The Internet has globalized the way we can follow the game, and as a result, groups of fans have a greater ability to get together and discuss the NBA outside of their home market, or to discuss it with other NBA fans from different markets. Kobe has spent his entire career under the microscope of having his every action accessible by any NBA fan, not just his local market. When Shaq and Kobe were feuding, it was a national story because of the 24 hour news cycle which has been driven by the internet. When Kobe took only 3 shots in the 2nd half of Game 7 of the playoff series against Phoenix a few years ago, the next day there were editorial pieces about it on national sports sites and blogs across the country. Kobe Bryant's career has existed in a fishbowl, and every negative detail has been gleaned off by those who choose to focus on the negative aspects of his career.
Jordan's career wasn't subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Most of Jordan's career occurred during a time when the national sports media was limited to weekly magazines, and USA Today. ESPN had barely come to fruition, and cable as a platform was just getting off the ground. But, most importantly, the internet didn't explode until the very end of Jordan's (real) career, when he was becoming the GOAT, and everything was rosy. There were no groups of fans from across the country discussing whether Jordan's 37 points per game on 28 shots/game was a great season or a selfish one. There were only Bulls fans who loved their new star. I don't remember whether it was a national story or not when Jordan punched teammates Steve Kerr and Will Perdue. But I can guarantee that there weren't national NBA message boards lit up the next day talking about how bad a teammate Jordan was, because such places did not exist. There was no place for any potential legion of Jordan "haters" to unite, to allow the negatives surrounding him to fester.
The best piece of evidence I can provide is the recent change in Jordan's status as an unassailable icon. Jordan's Hall of Fame speech has been derided as being childish, vindictive, and a show of poor sportsmanship. He's been criticized across the nation for exhibiting such behavior at an event that is supposed to be about celebration. And for the first time, in Henry Abbott's memory at least, there seems to be a faction of MJ haters out there, who dislike Jordan the person while respecting Jordan the ballplayer. Why does this exhibit prove my point? Because just about everybody who actually knew Jordan, those who were directly involved with his career, have all had the same reaction to the speech: "That's Michael." He wasn't acting differently during that HOF speech than he has in the past, we just have a greater capability to notice it.
If Michael was a player in today's NBA, there would be a sizable faction of Jordan "haters", no matter how many championships he might win. Rival fans might talk on their blogs and message boards about how big of a dick that MVP, championship winning, Bulls guard is. How he's selfish because he takes so many more shots than his teammates. How his teammates just pretend to like him because they fear being assaulted. National writers looking to drive traffic might make the same arguments, hoping simply to get reactions. This couldn't happen 20 years ago because most Bulls news wasn't a national storyline, and would only be reported in and around Chicago. And, even if people saw or heard about something they didn't like, they weren't likely to get together in person to discuss Jordan. 20 years ago, fans were almost universally concerned only with their own teams, because they really didn't have the capability to go very far beyond that. Now, other than the limiting factor of time, nothing is stopping us from following all 30 NBA teams at once. The internet has changed the way we can be fans of the game, but it has also created a way for us to be anti-fans of other teams and players.
In the end, there are plenty of differences between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. We can't tell yet whether Kobe will match or surpass MJ in championships. We won't ever be able to truly compare their career arcs because young Kobe had Shaq, which is either an enhancement of, or a detriment to, his legacy, depending on how you look at it. We can argue forever about whether Kobe emulates Jordan too much, and compare the two players in each individual aspect of the game. But it could be that the biggest difference between perceptions of the two players', the biggest reason why MJ will be remembered so adoringly, while Kobe could be remembered by some as much with vitriol as love, is because Kobe played in a time when everybody in the world had access to every aspect of his career, positive and negative, while Jordan played in a time when the general NBA fan only heard about his greatness.