This will be Kobe Bryant’s final season. He announced it yesterday, and the news made me think, instantly, of Michael Jordan. The last, greatest, and most devoted of his followers is passing; it’s the latest and most final-seeming of his many deaths, the destruction of his last on-court horcrux. Do you think Kobe would find this flattering or insulting, or both?

I think Young Kobe would have been flattered by the acknowledgment of the lineage and piqued by the suggestion that he wouldn’t eventually slaughter and consume his predecessor. Prime Kobe would have taken pride—the spurned, self-justifying self-congratulation that always was the closest thing to authentic humanity Michael had to pass along—in the notion of being the last standard bearer, the one saying, These punks don’t have the vision or rigor to walk the True Path. Old Man Kobe, I suspect, looks around at a basketball world he has given no children and gets a certain sour consolation from knowing that even if nobody comes to lay flowers by his grave, he and Mike can haunt each other.

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Kobe will fall short of Michael’s six rings, his 10 scoring titles, his six Finals MVPs, his historic regular-season and playoff scoring averages. He surpassed Mike in total points, which winds up functioning as a kind of failure; one thing Mike emphatically did not care about was playing more basketball than anybody else. Who the hell knows how to sort out any absolute qualitative difference between the two, whether Prime Mike would dust Prime Kobe or get dusted; I think Prime Mike wins, because I think Prime Kobe’s cosmology would require him to. This is all guesswork, of course, and not just because their primes never aligned.

Young Mike’s athletic range, versatility, and explosion begat the Jordan Rules, the synchronized mugging deployed by the Pistons and Pat Riley’s Knicks. The Jordan Rules begat Michael’s bulked-up, fadeaway- and free-throw-shooting second incarnation, the one that returned from his first retirement. Those two offspring fucked and begat the grinding, iso-heavy, 82-78 basketball of the years after his second retirement. That untelegenic stuff begat the turn-of-millennium handchecking and illegal-defense rules changes that eventually washed away the value of big, midrange-gunning, volume-scoring, Jordan-patterned guards ... just as Kobe’s rendition of the form peaked.

Give Kobe credit. He saw the sport had changed, recognized he couldn’t be Michael Jordan the individual, absolute, irreducible scoring force and Michael Jordan the annual champion, and rode high-screen-and-rolls with Pau Gasol to titles four and five. He understood the religion well enough to know that its highest holiday is the violent springtime one—and unlike, say, Tracy McGrady, he figured it out while he still had his prime to put on the cross, while he was still young and good enough for people to say and write and even believe things like Shit, man, he could still be putting up 35 a night if he wasn’t all about rings. If that isn’t quite as Michael-like as quitting the sport for a whole season to express contempt for your inferiors’ ways of measuring their value in it, damn if it isn’t the next-best thing.

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The thing about trying to be Michael Jordan the annual champion, though, is that you need the parts to align and stay aligned, and holy shit, man, did they ever not do that for Kobe. This was, in no small part, because of Kobe, because of the totality of his devotion to Jordan cosplay, because the one Michael Jordan he insisted upon being was Michael Jordan the domineering psychopath, and because free-agency tends not to deliver great players yearning to be treated like garbage in somebody else’s town. And now he’s going out a sad old shell, shy of Michael on all fronts, and without even the limited-edition retro re-issue glamor of Michael’s last stint with the Wizards (although I suppose that could still happen).

Even now, when he can’t even be Wizards-era Michael on the court, he’s still aping the contemptuous old fucker, where he can, which at this point means the “Dear Basketball” construction of his farewell (Michael would never deign to address himself to the fans or humanity). This could play as tragedy, or as grim comeuppance, but I guess I’m an optimist, because I prefer to see the humor in it. It’s just so fucking perfect, man: Michael’s spiteful ghost, wiping out its own tracks in the snow, ensuring that Michael’s own greatest and most faithful devotee, the person who loves and admires him most and most visibly in all the world, would not only perish shy of reaching him, but would leave behind no imitators of his own. Nobody wants to be like Kobe, man. Nobody even wants to beat him. They just want him to get the fuck out of the way.

That is victory the way an asshole like Michael Jordan measures it: Competitive dominance so great and terrible and absolute it consumes and annihilates even the traces of itself. Now he has it. Thank hell for that. Maybe he’ll let Kobe rattle part of his lonely chain at the birds and squirrels who pass by their lonely tomb, but there will only ever be one name on it.


Contact the author at albert.burneko@deadspin.com or on Twitter @albertburneko.