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Bryant followed Jordan's path -- and made his own way, too

In his Chicago farewell, Kobe Bryant reflects on how he and Michael Jordan are similar (and different)

POSTED: Feb 22, 2016 11:35 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Kobe Bryant had nothing but love for the Chicago crowd in his finale there Sunday.

— Playing for the last time in The House That Michael Jordan Built, The Man Who Heisted Jordan's Blueprint did not disappoint.

Kobe Bryant scored 22 points on 20 shots in 27 minutes, and the only sour note of the night was that those weren't 23's strung across the final box score. It was impossible to witness the latest stop on the Kobepalooza Hello-I-Must-Be-Going 2015-16 Tour and not think about Jordan. More than the destination they'll have in common five years from now in Springfield, Mass., the game Sunday night at United Center was about the space they shared as iconic and prolific scorers, about their ruthless competitiveness and on-court similarities.

GameTime: Kobe's Visits To Chicago

To mark Kobe Bryant's final game in Chicago, check out his career highlights in the Windy City.

In basketball moves, in mannerisms, Bryant wasn't just his NBA generation's version of Jordan. He often seemed like a replicant, to the point of eerie, to go with Lakers coach Byron Scott's word.

"He's probably as close to MJ as they come -- at least as we're probably going to see in our lifetime," Scott said before the game. "If you look at a picture of MJ in his later years and you look at a picture of Kobe, it's kind of eerie how similar it is and how close it is, not only from a basketball standpoint but the way he thinks about the game, the way he approaches the game, and his killer instinct.

"I haven't seen anybody since MJ take on that type of feeling when he's in the game as Kobe has. He's about as close as you can come."

I think for a number of years, MJ, the things that he's been able to accomplish on the court, has kept Kobe going. Because he's so competitive that he wanted to see if he could beat somebody that he has so much respect for.

– Lakers coach Byron Scott

Split-screens and overlays readily available on the Internet show how faithfully Bryant modeled his game -- copied and mimicked work as verbs there, too -- on Jordan's.

"No words can really do it justice," Bryant said of Jordan's influence on him. "Because as a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video, so I studied everything. I studied every player. Then once I came back to the states [and] I realized I wasn't going to be 6-9, I started studying Michael exclusively.

"And then when I came to the league and [was] matching up against him, what I found is that he was extremely open to having a mentor relationship and giving me a great amount of advice and an amazing amount of detail -- strategies, workout regimen and things like that. Seriously, I don't think people really understand the amount of impact that he's had on me as a player and as a leader."

Lakers vs. Bulls

Derrick Rose scores 24 points, grabs seven rebounds and hands out six assists to lead the Bulls past the visiting Lakers, 126-115. Kobe Bryant scored 22 points in his final visit to Chicago.

Later in the evening, after 23,000 fans had rattled the rafters where Jordan hung all those banners, chanting on Bryant's behalf, the Lakers star mentioned one way in which he and arguably the greatest player of all time differed. As Bryant saw it, while both of them might have been willing to knee-cap their grandmas to grab another championship, Jordan savored the act itself while Bryant found his satisfaction in planning his move.

"For him [retiring] was much, much different," Bryant said. "Because what motivates each of us was different. Michael was really driven by things you guys say -- challenges that are right in front of him. I'm really not. I'm more process-driven. So we talked about it, but what makes us tick internally is different. Where I'm at now, the space that I'm at, is different than what Michael went through the first time or the second time [he quit]."

Logicians might dismiss that as a distinction without a difference because, in the end, the results were what mattered. Jordan's six NBA titles and Bryant's five. Jordan's ability to win with Scottie Pippen, yes, but with otherwise retooled casts entirely vs. Bryant grabbing championships in 2009 and 2010 to hush the he-needs-Shaquille O'Neal-to-win crowd. Right down to the mind games Jordan and Bryant played with other players, where even an offhand "hello" got dissected by the paranoid opponent in search of some trick or ulterior motive.

Bottom line, it's fair -- and not at all a slight -- to say that without Jordan, there is no Bryant. Not this Kobe, the one to whom so many are so avidly yet wistfully saying goodbye. If nothing else, Jordan wound up as the ultimate rabbit, setting the pace for Bryant to follow.

"Great players steal from great players," Scott said. "I think in Kobe's mind, MJ was the best who had ever done it and he wanted to see if he could surpass that. You always need something to chase. If you're great, you always have to have something that's going to keep you going. I think for a number of years, MJ, the things that he's been able to accomplish on the court, has kept Kobe going. Because he's so competitive that he wanted to see if he could beat somebody that he has so much respect for."

Chicago Welcomes Kobe For His Final Game

Chicago rolls out all the stops with a video to commemorate Kobe Bryant's last game in the city of Chicago.

There were two occasions when Bryant and the Bulls thought about trying to replicate it in house, separated by a few walls from the statue that begat all the other statues dotting America's sports landscapes these days. In 2004, Bryant was a free agent sized up for a sign-and-trade. In 2007, he was frustrated enough in L.A. to ask the Lakers for a trade. Both times, Chicago was in play.

Keep in mind, when other big-name players flirted as free agents with the Bulls only to turn away, the claim more often than not was that no NBA player willingly wants to take on the ghost of Jordan and the legacy he left behind. Eventually, they realized it or admitted it.

Bryant scoffed at it Sunday night.

Seriously, I don't think people really understand the amount of impact that he's had on me as a player and as a leader.

– Kobe Bryant, on Michael Jordan

"You've known me for how long? Really?" Bryant teased the questioner. "Do I seem like the type to cower to something like that? C'mon, man. No."

In the end, Bryant and the Bulls had to settle for this one game, both cheered on like the home team. It was, oddly, only the second time Kobe had played at United Center since December 2010 -- a lockout and injuries intervened in three of the past four seasons.

This time, it was a more open, aware Bryant on the floor, conversing with guys on the Bulls' bench or fans in the corners even as Lakers' possessions unspooled. His pal Pau Gasol -- whom he faced for the final time -- had gotten things going, playing a special part in the farewell video tribute the Bulls showed on their scoreboard before tipoff. Bryant's teammates on those two post-Shaq title teams, Gasol took over P.A. chores to introduce "my former teammate and my friend ... Kobe Bryant."

The folks in the building had come for vintage Kobe and got that in spurts, particularly when he hit four consecutive jumpers to start the second half. "I didn't really get the sense that the crowd was behind me tonight," said Chicago's Mike Dunleavy, the fellow matched up with Bryant.

Bryant's Patented Move

Kobe Bryant hits his patented fade away during third quarter action versus the Bulls.

But Chicago fans got the bonus of some throwback D-Rose. Derrick Rose has been playing with an unmistakable and pinch-me familiarity lately, and the guy who won the 2011 Kia MVP averaging 25 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists finished with 24, 7 and 6. Near the end, when Rose was scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter to fend off the Lakers and Bryant's re-entry with 3:08 left for any potential goose-bump moments, the arena pulsed with "Ko-BE! Ko-BE!" when they might otherwise have been chanting for Rose.

Didn't matter. With 45.3 seconds to go, Bryant exited and Rose took a moment between free throws to applaud along with everybody else.

Now that such nights have dwindled to a precious few -- the Lakers have only eight road games left and then, of course, their season finale at home -- Bryant was asked what he'll miss most after spending more than half his years in the NBA.

"The competition," he said. "The staying up late trying to figure out how to solve the Derrick Rose-and-Pau Gasol screen-and-roll problems. How to handle the Kevin Durants, the D-Wades and all these guys. That preparation is the stuff that I'll always miss. I'll be up till 3, 4 in the morning trying to figure this stuff out, man.

Kobe Drops A Three

Kobe Bryant hits a three-pointer for his first points of the night.

"When I say competition, it's the preparation for the competition. ... It's the studying for the test that I'll miss. And you just reshuffle that with your next passion. You find something that you love to do and it's the process that keeps you going and keeps you interested, and that just evolves into the next endeavor."

Bryant sounds more ready for that -- "Storytelling. Filming," he said -- than those who merely have watched or chronicled his career. "I'm at peace now, extremely at peace," he said. "I keep waiting for the hammer to drop and the feeling that ... I've been playing this game since I was two years old, at some point it's really got to hit. But it hasn't hit me yet. Because I'm really, really at peace with this. I feel like this is the right thing and I'm ready to move on."

Pressed to cite something he wished he had achieved or still could before he leaves, Bryant said: "If there was something I wanted to accomplish, that window's gone! When I was a kid, I wanted to win multiple championships. That was the one thing -- I wanted to win as many championships as Magic [Johnson] had won, [Larry] Bird had won and then Michael ended up winning. ... I felt like I left a couple championships on the table."

So there it was, coming out at the end of a long, special day. If Kobe Bryant had left anything undone, it was something unwon. Same thing a certain other guy might say.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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