"I actually saw Kobe Bryant for the first time when they went to the [NBA] Finals in Boston. It's someone that I really look up to and admire, because of his competitiveness. I'd never met him before. You always watch other athletes and how they play the game and what makes them successful.” Posted on ESPNBoston.com on January 31st, that was Tom Brady’s response when asked by a reporter at Super Bowl Media Day who he admires athletically. Just 24 hours later, it came out on Twitter via Beto Duran for ESPN Radio who Kobe is rooting for in the Super Bowl: "I like Coach Belichik a lot. Somewhat of a relationship over the years so I'll support the Patriots."
The remarkable thing about both quotes is I have never heard a whiff of them before. I think the Patriots and Lakers are more similar than they seem, and I love them both for many of the same reasons. Never before have I had actual proof that they respected each other! I think it’s a wonderful thing when greatness can recognize greatness, no matter the sport or the animosity between the fan bases. I’ve always thought Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick used comparable coaching methods, and I really believe that Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant are cut from the same intensely competitive cloth. Plus it just makes me happy to know that the athletes I love the most respect each other. It sets the perfect tone for my article.
It is astounding how similar Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant are in terms of their respective careers and the stamp they have made on their sport. It might not seem like the most obvious parallel to make, and has been largely ignored by most people for that reason. On the other hand, I have watched them every moment they have played professional sports and would know better than most people. I’m aware that it doesn’t make sense to love one team from L.A. and one team from Boston, not with the sports history between the two cities. I've had 12 years of successful practice separating that fact in my head and heart, so I know it can be done. Most of it stems from the similarities between the two team leaders. They are the special type of players that you reserve hatred and respect for in equal measure. It’s easy to take them for granted, to be unable to fully appreciate their greatness until years from now when they are long retired.
It’s also easy to hate them, Tom with his good looks and supermodel wife, his Ugg boot endorsement and the fact that he wins so damn much. And how many times have you heard someone call Kobe arrogant, selfish, egotistical, or gleefully bring up the word “Colorado?” It’s easy to pick on both of them, but the funny thing is no one can actually muster up a good argument when you talk about their PLAY. You know, the actual part of the argument that matters? Whenever I can back up Tom and Kobe with facts, with memories about how they play the game, and disregard what they are like as people off the field, I usually get back an inconsequential unrelated response. I just smile and feel bad for those people. True fans of any sport will recognize and respect greatness, even if it is a player or team you despise. In the end it is about getting the very best from the sport that you can.
No one believed Tom Brady would make much of an impact in the NFL. He was pick # 199 in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL draft- 6 quarterbacks were taken in from of him. Brady spent most of his rookie season on the bench as the 3rd and eventual 2nd string option. Even though he fought hard for the starting job in college at Michigan and played well, expectations were not high. He was too slow, too skinny, and too pretty. Conversely, expectations were high for Kobe Bryant, pick #13 in the 1st round of the 1996 draft by Charlotte and immediately traded to Los Angeles. He was a high school phenomenon with an NBA pedigree. Instead of making an impact right out of the gate though, he spent his first two years on the Lakers bench.
History intervened in both cases. Drew Bledsoe was injured badly in the second game of the 2001 season against the New York Jets, and Brady got to start. He kept the starting job and ended a spectacular second year by becoming the youngest player at the time to win a Super Bowl title. The Lakers landed Phil Jackson from Chicago, one of the most celebrated coaches in NBA history and used his unique approach and winning attitude to mold one of the most dynamic duos in NBA history with Kobe and Shaq. Their supreme athletic gifts combined with Phil’s winning sensibility led to three straight titles from 2000-2002. Kobe had three rings by the time he was 23 years old and helped lead the Lakers to the first threepeat since Michael Jordan won 3 in a row with the the Bulls.
The Patriots added back to back titles of their own in 2003 and 2004, a much harder feat in the NFL than it is in the NBA. Tom had three rings by the time he was 26, and two Super Bowl MVP awards. He and Joe Montana- his childhood idol- are the only two players in NFL history with two Super Bowl MVPs and two NFL MVPS. Brady got his first in 2007, after setting the record for most touchdown passes in a season and leading the Patriots to a 16-0 record. The second came as a unanimous vote in 2010, the first in NFL history.
One of the most unique quirks of Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady’s personalities are how motivated they are by real and imaginary forces every day. They have reached the pinnacle of their sport many times; whether it is a tactic to keep stoking the fire or just how their mind works, Bryant and Brady never let anything go. They might brush off a slight during a media session, but you better believe it is being filed away for use at a later time.
Kobe sees and hears everything; you need no further evidence than when ESPN.com ranked him #7 on their list of best players in the NBA during the off-season. After he scored 48 points against Phoenix (part of his three 40+ point games in a row), he quipped “Not bad for the 7th best player in the league.” He is made of iron will and competitive fire, and all the media keeps doing is giving him fuel. Kobe’s old? Watch him dunk over someone 10 years younger. Kobe’s injured? Watch him score 40 points with a torn ligament in his wrist. Lebron, Wade, so-and-so is better? Kobe’s leading the league in scoring right now. He just had back-to-back-to-back 40+ point games… in his 16th season! He lives to prove people wrong, and he lives to push the upper echelon of success each and every day. The Kobe System commercials by Nike are a perfect example. Success for the Successful: he has a who’s who of athletic and entertainment firepower in those commercials- everyone from Jerry Rice to Kanye West to Serena Williams- hanging on his every word to learn the Kobe System. It’s brilliant.
The only reason I’m sure Tom Brady isn’t in the Kobe System commercial? He doesn’t need it: he’s there. He has the Brady System. If you think that he’s forgotten how many times he was passed over in the NFL draft, you’re wrong. Just this past week, Mark Schlereth of ESPN said that Brady still has a chip on his shoulder that dates back to when he was passed over in the draft. If you think he’s forgotten about that lost Super Bowl, or the season he lost to knee injury, you’re wrong. Like Kobe, he wakes up every morning to prove people wrong. Players think Brady’s too pretty and soft to play football? Watch him leap over defenders into the end zone with the game on the line. Brady can’t move? Watch him scramble out of the pocket and pick up valuable yards when his team needs them most. Brady can’t come back from a debilitating knee injury? He actually won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2009.
He has also led his team to the postseason all three years since then, won the NFL’s first unanimous MVP award in 2010 and beat Dan Marino’s single season yards record this past season. Lloyd Carr, the head coach at Michigan when Brady attended, said in the ESPN special Year of the Quarterback: the Brady 6, “Nobody works harder than Tom Brady.” That’s a great quality to have in a college player, a special quality. Now fast forward to last week. Brady’s former teammate Troy Brown was asked for one word to describe Brady: "Determination. There are not many people that I've met that are as determined and competitive as Tom Brady has been over the years. I mean, it's never enough for this guy.” That’s AFTER winning 3 Super Bowls. That’s AFTER winning the MVP. Ron Jaworski puts it brilliantly in the previously mentioned ESPN special when he says “Here’s one of the greatest football players in NFL history and he still has a chip on his shoulder to be the very best.”
Tom Brady is on the brink of winning his 4th Super Bowl and got there by throwing an NFL postseason record 5 touchdown passes in the first half of the Broncos game on January 14th. He and Bill Belichick are the winningest coach-quarterback duo in history with 124 regular season wins. You don’t think Tom noticed how all anyone talked about in the week leading up to their playoff game against Denver was “Tebow this, Tebow that, Tebow is miraculous”? He noticed. He set a postseason career high against Tebow with 363+ yards. He knows how to handle the media. He’ll say the right thing and mean it, but like Kobe, he files away every perceived slight and lives to prove them wrong. Opposing players especially love to mouth off to the media about Brady, and like Ian O’Connor of ESPN Boston said yesterday “These comments aren't likely to be embraced by Brady, known to be inspired by real and imagined slights.”
Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady play like they haven’t won a thing in their lives. They play like they are not the leaders that everyone else is measured against. They want to win to prove to themselves that they are worthy enough, and that is a remarkable thing. Tom Brady said in the Year of the Quarterback special “That’s what gets me up and motivates me. I always want to feel that I’m the best quarterback for this team. I want to earn it every single day.”
Having gifted teammates and two of the most brilliant coaches in their sport helped immensely, but Kobe and Tom became champions at a young age because of their determination, their work ethic and their passion for the amazing games that they played. The heart of a champion is ingrained deep in the DNA of Bryant and Brady. They show the highest respect for the history of their sports, and use it to improve every season. They will not relinquish their crowns easily. There are many young Padawans vying for their spot, but Bryant and Brady are still the Jedi Masters until they say “quit”, a word which I don’t believe is in either of their vocabularies. Additionally, Kobe’s basketball IQ and Tom’s football IQ is astounding, which allows them in a way to effectively coach on the field and elongate their careers by adjusting and always learning and adding to their game.
As far as dedication, Kobe has been with the Lakers all 16 years of his career, and Tom has been with the Patriots for all 12 of his. Injuries don’t slow them down like normal people. It’s become impossible to count the number of injuries that Kobe has played through over the years: the knee, the pinky, the torn wrist ligament, and a host of others. He soldiers on and shows a remarkable will to win and imperviousness to pain. I’d call him bullish, but know that he will sit if he truly needs to (like when he took 5 games off to rest his ankle a couple seasons ago).
Tom Brady has been on the “probable” part of the injury list every game for as long as I can remember. In a 2009 game against the Miami Dolphins, he took a big hit in the 1st quarter, got some treatment and was back on the field without missing a snap. It wasn’t disclosed until days later that he had broken ribs to go along with his already injured right finger and right shoulder. He sat out practice this year too, right before the AFC championship game, with a shoulder injury but was ready to go by game-time. I find it cosmic that Kobe has so many injuries to his shooting hand and arm, and Tom has had so many to his throwing arm, yet neither of them will miss a game if it can be helped.
They play through injuries because they are competitive, and I believe because it inspires their teammates as well. Wes Welker came back in remarkable fashion after tearing the ACL and MCL in his knee during the 2010 regular season finale, and only took ten months to do so. He said how Brady was a big resource for him both as part of treatment, and just for practicing with. Tom always wanted to throw “one more. If it’s not perfect, it’s ‘another one, another one.’ He’s like ‘two more to this side’ and I’m like ‘So that’s about 10.”
My favorite thing about both of them, however: their intensity on the court/field. The passion that emanates from them in every play they participate in. The ice water that runs through their veins in the biggest moments, on the biggest stages, in their sports. They are the Black Mamba and Tom Terrific, clutch competitors that don’t know the meaning of “give up”. It’s always there lurking beneath the surface, but sometimes you can see it bubble to the top and manifest itself in a physical way. Like the Kobe Face.
The Lakers beat a tough Utah team to open the second round of the 2010 playoffs, and Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles wrote afterwards “We got to see The Kobe Face. You know the one: lower jaw jutting out and pointed like the "V for Vendetta" mask, nostrils flaring like dual exhaust pipes… At times this season, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have looked nothing like the championship team they were last year, but seeing that face again and the moment that spurred it was a reminder that things haven't changed all that much.” He’s feeling it when that look starts showing up; it’s like his way of showing everyone that he’s extra intense and in the zone. I always know something special will happen when I see that face- such a beautiful and mesmerizing thing.
Most of the time, Tom is like Kobe: calm, methodical and precise. He has a Mamba side of his own though, and according to a Boston Herald article from the 2010 season can become “the fist-waving, voice-raising, fiery leader. The GQ quarterback yelled during huddles, hollered at linemen for mistakes and was visibly animated during sideline meetings, and the Patriots followed their leader during a dominating 39-26 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.” I remember that game clearly, and Brady’s attitude was one of my favorite things about it. His passion for football and his will to win that game against a storied opponent was clearly evident, and so exciting. I love when he scores rushing touchdowns because he spikes the ball better than anyone! He winds his arm up and spikes it with all the force and passion he can muster. It’s pretty exhilarating.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady is the trajectory in which their careers mirror each other. They have been at the top of the mountain early and the bottom of the ravine not long after, only to rise again from the ashes.
2010 was the first season that Kobe Bryant had faced the reviled Phoenix Suns in the postseason since they knocked the Lakers out in both 2006 and 2007. I’m sure they were on the top of Kobe’s hit list just like they were on the top of mine. In the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers finally defeated the Suns after an emotional and demanding series. Their grand prize: a chance for revenge against their most hated rivals: the Boston Celtics. The Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals, and now the chance had come for redemption.
It was a bitter, heavily-contested series that came down to the last minutes of Game 7- it was one of the most anxiety-ridden moments of my life. There is nothing grander that beating a team you hate in the waning moments of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I think the only thing that could possibly compare would be a game winner at the buzzer, but I’m pretty sure I would pass out from stress if it came down to that. The Lakers prevailed, and wrote one more incredible chapter in their thrilling saga with the Celtics. I feel so lucky that I got to witness that game, and that series- it was one of the top moments of my basketball life and I will cherish it always.
It sure felt good to watch the Lakers finally win. Kobe tied Magic Johnson with the most rings as a Laker (5) and is one championship away from tying the greatest player to ever play the game, the man he is compared to more than any other: Michael Jordan. Kobe won his redemption. Now it’s time for Tom to win his.
This weekend will mark Tom Brady’s 5th return to the Super Bowl and the culmination of his hunt to get 4 championship rings (and tie Joe Montana in the process). It also marks the full circle journey that he has been on since the New York Giants shocked the football world by beating the Patriots in Super Bowl 42 and ruining their perfect season.
He has already gotten revenge on the Baltimore Ravens this post-season- they embarrassed the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs, the first playoff game Brady played since the 2008 Super Bowl. Now he can earn redemption against the Giants as well. As Mark Schlereth of ESPN said this week "You can't tell me there's not something stuck in everybody's craw that was on that [Patriots] team, especially the head coach and the quarterback," he says. Just to sweeten the pot, what better place to earn said redemption than Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the seat of his biggest rival? It’s fitting that he could beat Eli Manning, the quarterback of a team that has continuously handed the Patriots defeat at the worst times, in the house that his older brother Peyton built. It’s almost like taking out two Mannings with one football.
This postseason has been an unusually important one. The Patriots hadn’t won a playoff game since 2007, until Tom Brady showed that Tim Tebow still has a lot of catching up to do. They got the proverbial monkey off their back by beating the Ravens and Ray Lewis’ punishing defense. Now they have a chance to complete their 2011 revenge tour against the New York Giants on Sunday, and trust me: nothing…. NOTHING would taste sweeter. Just ask Kobe.
Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady have given me immense joy over the years. I love sports deeply and watching them play on my teams has been an honor and a privilege. It’s always difficult to define and understand greatness when it is happening right in front of you, but I try my best to remember that they will not be around forever, to appreciate each basket, each touchdown, and each pass as they happen.
Kobe will turn 34 this August. Tom will turn 35 this August. They both signed contract extensions in 2010 that will keep them with their respective teams through the 2014 season. If they both retire at the same time, 2014 could end up being the worst year of my life. Somehow I have a feeling that Kobe and Tom might hold on a little longer; it will be the twilight of their careers by then, but they are competitive, passionate, dedicated warriors with iron bodies and strong mentalities. They will ride off into the sunset dictated by nothing but their own terms. After all, that’s how they’ve done everything for their whole careers. Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady: two roads diverged in a locker room, one to basketball, one to football, both leading to immortality.