Kobe and Mike
A look into the connection between two of the greatest winners in sports history.
Teachers take pride in students that try the hardest … the ones that want to be at their absolute best.
When Michael Jordan was dominating the NBA in the 1990’s, he may not have realized it, but he was teaching a young kid named Kobe Bryant from afar long before Kobe was drafted straight out of high school in 1996.
Soon, Kobe would seek out Jordan’s advice on an almost constant basis, and the two ultimate competitors would became very close, in part due to their shared, unquenchable desire to be great.
Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been glued to “The Last Dance” on ESPN, which captures the 1998 Chicago Bulls season, and how the Bulls dynasty got to that point. Jordan, of course, is the main driver and character of the story.
The highlight of Episode Seven was a poignant moment from Jordan, prompted by this question from director Jason Hehir: “Through the years, do you think that intensity has come at the expense of being perceived as a nice guy?”
Winning has a price. Leadership has a price. I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. I earned that right. My teammates who came after me didn’t endure all the things I endured. Once you join the team, you live with a certain standard of how I played the game. I wasn’t going to take anything less. If that means I have to go in and get in your ass a little bit, then I did that. You can ask all my teammates, one thing about Michael Jordan, he didn’t ask me to do one thing that he didn’t (expletive) do. When people see this, 'Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.' No. that’s you. You never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well. Look I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way. Break.”
- Michael Jordan
As Jordan spoke, my mind wandered to all of the times I held a microphone in front of Kobe, hearing various versions of Mike’s message that had clearly permeated through a young Bryant.
After the tragic loss of Kobe in January, Jordan spoke with great meaning at the memorial service at STAPLES Center, and with tears streaming down his face from the moment he took the stage.
“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” said Jordan. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother … I promise you, from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing that I had a little brother that I tried to help in every way I could. Please rest in peace, little brother.”
Go back and watch Jordan’s full speech another time, and try not to be moved by that genuine connection, that real pain*. And then in the documentary, for different reasons, Jordan gets emotional just before he says “break.” I know that’s exactly how Kobe felt, and it’s no coincidence that they became who they became.
*Spoiler: you can't.
I recall so many times during his playing career that Kobe was asked about what drove him to play the way he played, to lead the way he led, and he sounded a lot like Jordan in that clip.
In September of 2019, doing an interview for Motiversity, “The Mindset of a Winner,” Kobe said: “If you want first place, come play with me. If you want second place, go somewhere else.”
Yup. That’s Kobe. And Jordan.
“Everything was done to try to learn how to be a better basketball player,” Kobe continued. “Everything. Everything.”
Kobe used a metaphor of an actor in a movie, thinking of Maximus in “Gladiator” when he grabs the dirt before a battle: “When I’m in that cage, bro, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me,” Kobe said. “Leave me alone.”
Bryant talked about his G.O.A.T mountain, the greats of the game whose brains he picked throughout his career, including Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, and, most of all, Jordan.
“Michael in particular, he’s become my big brother, he’s been my big brother since I first came in the league,” Kobe explained. “What was that process like? I went to them and started understanding the ins and outs of the game, how they approached things in their level of detail and obsessiveness, and that’s what I did. The players that had that passion, but weren’t willing to commit their entire lives to doing that… it’s a choice. You have other things … family, all these others things you have to do … the game really can’t be your No. 1 priority. I was just looking at that like, man, this is going to be fun.”
Jordan and Kobe were very much aware of that kid in the upper deck who would only get to see him play one time in his life, and they weren’t about to let that kid down. Injury? Fatigue? Nah.
“You got a lot of people paying their hard-earned money to come watch you perform,” said Kobe. “Perform. Perform. It’s your job to be in shape. It’s your job to be strong enough to perform at that level every single night. And as a competitor, I’m not ducking (expletive).”
Jordan saw that in Kobe from the beginning, when Kobe approached him at the free throw line when the Lakers played at Chicago on Dec. 17, 1997, asking him the key to his baseline fadeaway. Kobe told me that Jordan explained the key to the move, which was to feel the defender with his front leg before going up, and keeping separation with that leg. By the way: Kobe scored 33 points on 12 of 20 shooting in a 104-83 Bulls win, with Jordan going for 36 on 12 of 22 FG’s plus 11 free throws.
“He used to call me, text me, 11:30 p.m., 2:30 a.m, 3:00 a.m., talking about post up moves, footwork, the triangle (offense),” said Jordan. “At first, it was an aggravation, but then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know. It’s an amazing thing about passion. If you love something, if you have a strong passion for something, you would go to the extreme to try and understand or try to get it … he wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be.”
I started working for the Lakers just prior to the start of the 2008-09 season, coming off a difficult Finals loss to the hated Celtics. From the jump, I saw an intense, focused, hard-driving Kobe that was not going accept anything less than that from his teammates. Fast forward to July of 2010, and he’d driven those teammates to back-to-back championships.
He brought the best out of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The Spaniard, in particular, responded incredibly well from a tough Finals series against the rugged Celtics during which he had little help inside with Bynum out injured.
The next year, Kobe continued to stay on his teammates in pursuit of a three-peat despite his ailing knee.
“I talked with Pau a little bit about being a little more selfish, being aggressive,” he said in 2011. “Even when he was in Memphis and he was the go-to guy, he was always very nice. Very white swan. I need him to be black swan. Be an (expletive) sometimes.”
Pau, definitively, was a black swan when the Lakers needed him to be, perhaps best represented by his 19-point, 18-rebound, 4-assist, 2-block Game 7 in the 2010 Finals against Boston. And Gasol consistently credited Kobe’s drive as a major reason for taking his own game to the next level.
Of course, there are many stories about how Jordan and Kobe played bad cop with teammates. The documentary takes you through some of MJ’s greatest hits, while a Kobe story you may hear the most – since the media was allowed in at the time – came when Bryant brought out his infamous “Charmin” trash talk at the end of practice with Nick Young and Co. during the 2014-15 campaign.
That’s what came with the pursuit of greatness. As Jordan said, it wasn’t just for him – he wanted his teammates to experience that winning as well. And, well … Jordan and Kobe got rings for a lot of guys.
“I admired him because, his passion, you rarely see someone who is looking and trying to improve each and every day, not just in sports, but as a parent, as a husband,” Jordan concluded, touching on the chapter of Kobe’s life after he retired. “I am inspired by what he has done and what he has shared with (his wife) Vanessa and what he has shared with his kids.”
In fact, Jordan said he couldn’t wait to get home to his twin 6-year-old girls, to try to be a #girldad like Kobe.
“Kobe gave every last ounce of himself to whatever he was doing … in retirement, he seemed so happy,” Jordan continued. “He found new passions, and he continued to give back as a coach, in his community. More importantly, he was an amazing dad, an amazing husband, who dedicated himself to his family, and who loved his daughters with all his heart. Kobe never left anything on the court, and I think that’s what he would want for us to do.”
Maybe there was a part of “Being like Mike,” from the Gatorade commercials for a young Kobe. But ultimately, Bryant just wanted to be at his absolute best, and nothing was going to stop him from that pursuit.
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