The story has been the same for years: if Kobe Bryant nails a game winning shot or Derek Jeter gets a walk-off RBI, the sports world at large shudders in disappointment. Two of the greats in their respective games, reviled by a vocal majority but loved by a passionate fan base of millions, are also two of the easiest players to root against. At this point, there's really no debate as to whether either man is a Hall of Famer--those honors were cemented years ago. What's left are simply more records to topple and fellow legends to surpass. They play for the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Yankees, the two lumbering giants in their respective sports. For years, I've been saying that there should hardly ever be a case in which the Lakers and Yankees fan bases should be rooting against one another--in so many ways they're two sides of the same golden coin. Championships are the expected standard and anything short of those lofty heights is considered a monumental failure season upon season. Superstars and sporting luminaries dot the periphery of both franchises, with Bryant and Jeter being just the latest in an endless line of dozens. The Lakers and Yankees operate on very much the same level, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, so it should be to the surprise of no one that the two latest and greatest of their stars mirror one another to great lengths.
The parallels run deep between Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, so much so that I'm amazed more isn't made of their remarkably parallel careers.
After a cup of coffee during the 1995 season, Jeter started his first full year with the Yankees in 1996, just two months before Kobe Bryant was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft and subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. There's little doubt that Kobe's rookie year was a smashing success; though he failed to finish in the top-5 of Rookie of the Year voting (outpaced by winner Allen Iverson and then by such names as Antoine Walker, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Kerry Kittles. For real.), he did garner a place on the All-Rookie Second Team, as well as play a supporting role on a Lakers squad that went to the second round of the playoffs. Bryant did all of this, mind you, as an 18 year-old. What were you doing at that age? Graduating high school? Kobe was throwing down 22 points on the Portland Trailblazers in the first round.
Even as Bryant had a solid rookie campaign, Jeter went on to have one of the greatest rookie campaigns in league history. After throwing down a .314 average and seizing the Rookie of the Year award, the fresh faced shortstop led the Yankees in the postseason with a remarkable 22 hits in just 15 games. The Bombers would win their first championship in 18 years that October, thanks in no small part to their rookie sensation. Derek Jeter was just 22 years old.
On the hardwood, Kobe's wait for his first chip was only four seasons, but for him, it felt like an eternity. By the time the 1999-2000 season rolled around, Bryant had met three painful postseason exits despite being part of an extremely talented Lakers team built around world beater Shaquille O'Neal. As hard as it is to believe, Kobe had come up empty in his first postseason--quite literally. The Black Mamba-to-be had airballed four times in an elimination game against the eventual Western Conference champion Utah Jazz in 1997. A year later, the Lakers made it all the way to the Conference Finals, only to be swept by the same Malone and Stockton-led Jazz. The results wouldn't be that much different a year later, as the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs bulldozed the Lakers in the second round with a clean 4-0 sweep. In his young career, Kobe had tasted professional disappointment that Jeter wouldn't come to sniff until his ninth professional year.
It took six-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson to put everything together. The Zen Master harnessed a talented but mismanaged team with his legendary triangle offense, guiding them to the second best record in franchise history at 67-15. The season would end with the Lakers winning their first championship in 12 years, with their young shooting guard averaging 21 points in the playoffs. Kobe Bryant was just 21 years old.
By the time Kobe had begun his first title defense, Derek Jeter stood proud in the Bronx with four championship rings adorning his throwing hand. He had won four titles in his first five seasons, capping that monumental run by nabbing the 2000 World Series MVP trophy. Though just 26 years old, Jeter had established himself as one of the most decorated Yankees of all-time, as every onlooker saw that the Captain was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest to ever wear pinstripes. He'd go on to win two more pennants in the next three years (though falling short of the title both times), giving Jeter an incredible six World Series appearances in his first eight full seasons.
Bryant followed suit with a similarly astounding run. By 1999, Kobe had established himself as not just one of the great young guards in the game, but quite plainly as one of the best the NBA had to offer. He accompanied his first championship with both his first All-Defense First Team and All-NBA Second Team nods. He'd go to the Finals three of the next four seasons, winning two more titles, but as an even more impressive feat, began to ignite conversations of whether or not he could supplant Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. At 25 years old, Bryant was a three-time champion and perennial MVP candidate.
The heavy amounts of nearly simultaneous victories at early ages tied Kobe and Derek neatly together, but it was (and still is) their competitive hunger, tireless work ethic and endless focus on winning that truly linked the two. The duo have been noted as two of the most focused athletes ever to play, ever striving to outwork their opponents and come up biggest when the stage is brightest. Beyond baseball and basketball, I'm not sure what these two do--hell, I'm not sure they know what to do. There's hardly a superlative you could summon about one that wouldn't apply to the other--if you admire nothing else about either player, there's no denying that there are very few professionals who are working as hard for as long as Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant have.
For both men, the next half decade after their initial success would be wrought with--for them--extremely disappointing early season exits. Their timelines seemed to run in reverse: Bryant missed the playoffs for the first time ever in 2005 (immediately following Jackson's departure and the trade of O'Neal), but would slowly build his Lakers back up, culminating in a catastrophic Finals loss to the Boston Celtics in 2008. Meanwhile, Jeter would continue to make the playoffs (including a devastating loss to the Boston Red Sox in 2004 after holding a 3-0 lead in the ALCS), but would come up short year after year, ultimately culminating in his Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time ever in 2008.
Both players were much maligned for their playoff failures, though the brunt of the Lakers' losses were placed solely on the shoulders of Kobe, while the New York media relished the opportunity to pile onto Jeter's embattled teammate Alex Rodriguez. Still, there were questions around both as to whether or not they'd be able to recapture their early career magic, as Derek had already moved into his early-thirties with Kobe following close behind. Yes, Bryant and Jeter continued to break franchise records amongst the giants that had worn their uniforms before them, but the sustained championship success that Magic Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mickey Mantle, Jerry West and Joe DiMaggio had captured continued to elude these two nascent legends.
In yet another serendipitous twist, the conclusions to their respective 2009 seasons represented redemption for both players. Rebounding from a physical massacre a year earlier in Boston, the newly toughened Lakers rolled through the regular season, losing just seven playoff games en route to the franchise's 15th title, a returned Phil Jackson's 10th and Kobe's 4th. Bryant, now 30 years old, had finally triumphed without Shaquille O'Neal, ending years of speculation that he couldn't lead a team of his own to championship glory. Kobe's Finals MVP spoke volumes in objection, as if the Larry O'Brien trophy he held so dearly that night didn't echo those same sentiments.
Months later, Derek Jeter leapt in the air with similar fervor after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. The Yankees too had rebounded from a treacherous end to 2008, steamrolling the 2009 season with a 103-59 record and winning the title with new imports C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. It would be the franchise's 26th title and Derek's 5th. Jeter, now 35 years old, had pulled himself closer to Whitey Ford's six titles, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle's seven and Lou Gerhig's eight. Regardless of the legends he had yet to surpass, Jeter's fully ringed hand left less doubt than ever before that he was truly one of the greatest players in franchise history.
Just a year later, Kobe would pull even, winning his fifth title in one of the most monumental games in Lakers lore--a Game 7 NBA Finals win in Los Angeles against the hated Boston Celtics. The two had become even more alike than the preceding 14 years of their careers: five championships in seven tries, helping line up more and more gold to the already glittering walls of their respective organizations. Oddly, both players had far less individual glory than has probably truly been merited (Kobe with just one regular season MVP and Jeter with zero), but both hold claim to the trophies that actually matter. Somehow, they've managed to weave their way through cluttered hallways in the Bronx and downtown Los Angeles, emerging from a pack of legends not just in their franchises, but in their league histories. The groups of players on the Lakers and Yankees that Kobe and Jeter, respectively, had surpassed alone are more greats than some other organizations have, period.
However, even as seven conference and league titles and five championships might set them apart on most teams, it seems that neither player will ever completely be able to lay claim to "greatest in franchise history". It seems that no matter how many much more individual or team glory either could take, there's almost no way that they'd be able to surpass the fabled legacies of Ruth, Johnson, Gerhig, Abdul-Jabbar, et al. Those larger-than-life players are so deeply embedded within the fabric of MLB and the NBA at large that it'd take a gargantuan late career push to put themselves on the same plateau as these sporting giants.
Still, there's no taking away from what Bryant and Jeter have accomplished. They've both succeeded in the country's two largest cities, under the grinding pressure of two of the most unforgiving fan bases who don't just expect excellence, but rather never before seen brilliance. They've managed to make names for themselves in organizations where all-star plaques and Rookie of the Year trophies get put onto the back shelf of a warehouse. To this point, their almost unfathomable triumphs have been so much alike that it feels like a movie script.
But as the beginning of their careers are intertwined, it looks as though 2013 will serve as a mirror image between the two once again. Yesterday, Derek Jeter triumphantly made his return from the disabled list, this time hopefully for good. The shortstop homered in the first pitch he saw from Tampa Bay all-star Matt Moore, a moon shot to the right center field bleachers. Jeter helped lead the Yankees to a much needed victory, with the team ending the day with a 54-50 record and in third place in the AL East. In a very un-Yankee-like fashion, the Bronx Bombers are a veteran squad wracked with injury, starved for offense and without solutions money can buy. New York went into this season without making many offseason additions in hopes of getting below the luxury tax line for the 2014 campaign, leaving several crucial holes in the line-up and pitching staff which have only been exacerbated by an unbelievable wave of injuries. Apparently the fear of an eight-figure luxury tax bill had scared new management into making financial decisions over addressing on-field concerns, led by the two oft-criticized sons of late owner George Steinbrenner.
Spending a large chunk of the season sidelined with an injury suffered in the dying moments of a lost season, Jeter comes back to a Yankees team unlikely to make the postseason, let alone win a championship. He'll have to adjust his game on the fly, nursing an ankle that's been broken twice while trying to play one of the most demanding positions on the diamond. There's little doubt that Derek Jeter has the will to come back as an elite player in the game, but the odds against him of actually doing so seem near insurmountable.
Three months from now, the NBA season will start, but most likely without Kobe Bryant on an active roster. Like Jeter, the Mamba suffered a late season injury that will undoubtedly affect him into the 2013-2014 season, whether it leaves him shelved for a period of time or learning how to evolve his game while playing major league games. He'll return to a Lakers team that, like the 2013 Yankees, are hamstrung by luxury tax concerns and will presumably be fighting for a playoff spot, let alone the franchise's 17th title. Hal and Hank Steinbrenner certainly deserve some of the scrutiny for the personnel maneuvers they've overridden GM Brian Cashman on, each of which seem to parallel Lakers VP of Player Personnel and team owner Jim Buss. Like the younger Steinbrenners, Jimmy inherited control of the team from his legendary owner father, the late Dr. Jerry Buss, and now faces daily condemnation from any Lakers fan whose voice--or comment board--is loud enough. With a questionable hand clutching the helm of the marquee franchise, is there much hope for Kobe--like Jeter--to get the requisite help needed to win another title? Or to supplement the brutal curves of being an aging star? Jeter has returned to the fold, but who else can he rely on as he attempts to regain his form?
As we watch Derek Jeter come back to a Yankees team that could struggle night in and night out as they have been, it's hard to envision a scenario where Kobe Bryant won't encounter the same repetitive battles every time the Lakers take the court. Even if Bryant returns in November or December as he's proclaimed, it's important to remember that it won't be the same basketball deity that we've had the pleasure of watching for 17 years. He's a soon-to-be 35-year-old professional NBA player who's coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury that typically saps people of their athleticism, speed and quickness.
As their decorated careers have mirrored each other until this point, it seems terrifyingly appropriate that these two legends have one more hurdle to clear in the twilight of their playing days that will simply prove their greatness. It's been difficult to discount both players their entire careers--why would 2013 be any different?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino