The Point

The Point: Jordan’s ‘Last Dance’ Shows How Far His Connection With Kobe Came

by Kevin Ding
Senior Writer

Valuable as it would have been for Kobe Bryant to answer the question, what he said instead was still gold.

It was early December 2014, not long before Bryant would pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring chart. I said Bryant’s voice sounded funny, a little lower-pitched, and he acknowledged he was dealing with a cold. Talking about his “big brother” Michael seemed to have more healing properties than even the bone broth staple of Bryant’s late-career diet, though.

- How upon entering the league, his contemporaries were “terrified, like, deathly afraid” of Jordan, but Bryant was blissfully eager to approach him.

- How “there's an understanding that we have, a connection that we have.”

- How part of that was them both being “combative” as players, but part of it was simply loving to “rib each other” as dudes.

- How he was proudest of his “marathon” career arc that could not be compared with Jordan’s.

It was like chicken soup for Bryant’s soul, so I prodded him to explain in what ways Jordan’s guidance helped the most.

“There are a lot of ‘em, actually,” Bryant said quickly.

Then he paused, as if he were mentally opening that treasure chest and gazing upon all the jewels the two of them had studied. Alas, he gently shut the lid to the magic box—albeit with a compelling explanation.

“To get that kind of information …” Bryant said when he started again. “To me, it’s like climbing Mount Everest and speaking to a Buddha at the top of the mountain. You want that information? You’ve got to climb that mountain yourself.”

Very few knew at the time how close Bryant and Jordan had become. Even after Bryant did pass Jordan in career points, the public salute from Jordan was antiseptic. His statement read: “I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone. He’s obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic, and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball. I’ve enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”

So it was immensely powerful for the world to hear, five years later, how much existed between the two when Jordan stepped up to speak at the Feb. 24 memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant at STAPLES Center.

“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” Jordan said less than a minute in to an 11-minute speech, the tears already flowing. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother.”

If the most precious basketball secrets the two share shall remain in that treasure chest, that speech was Jordan opening another vault—and letting the love between one generation’s idol and the next’s spill forth at a time when we all needed to feel warmth wash over us.

“That is what Kobe Bryant does to me,” Jordan said of his tears, laughing about becoming another “crying meme” and eliciting smiles all around him.

“Even though if he’s being a pain in the ass,” Jordan said, “always you have to have a sense of love for him and the way that he can bring out the best in you. And he did that for me.” It was affirmation for why we love sports: At the unlikeliest time, we found something to distract us, something to find interesting.

Something to believe in.

Kobe and Michael had love for each other. It really happened, this kid full of hope winning over his idol with his earnestness. Remember that Kobe only had two older sisters, so no big brother—and Michael never had a little brother. They truly changed each other’s lives, with Michael making clear in that speech his admiration for Kobe’s post-basketball life.

It was reassuring that things can make sense even when so much doesn’t make sense.

Sports bond people through times, good and bad. And without live action during this bad COVID-19 time, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” 10-part documentary inside Jordan’s final championship team became particularly anticipated.

The next episode, set to premiere 6 p.m. Sunday, will feature a 2019 Bryant, reflecting on Jordan for documentary producers. There was a December 1997 game that season in which Bryant scored 33, Jordan scored 36, the Bulls beat the Lakers … and one guy told the other afterward to reach out if he wanted help.

That fifth episode will specifically delve into the 1998 All-Star Game—Jordan’s last with the Chicago Bulls, Bryant’s first with the Lakers—a couple months later. That 19-year-old Bryant remains the youngest All-Star in NBA history, and now we know the zeal with which Bryant went after Jordan that day wasn’t just impetuous youth. It was Kobe chasing a challenge, per the usual.

Bryant scored 18 points in 22 minutes; Jordan had 23 points in 32 minutes and was named All-Star MVP for the third and final time.

Bryant went on to win that award four times. It is now named after him.

Something to bear in mind as you appreciate “The Last Dance” archives: Bryant, with NBA permission, had a camera crew follow him behind the scenes throughout his final season in 2015-16. The crew's press passes had “20th Season LLC” on them. We all know that story’s 60-point happy ending.

Whatever becomes of all that footage someday, it was another example of Bryant’s planning and vision to inspire anew once he finished playing. He notably did not turn to the old footage as a quick crutch in his new life, however.

As cool as it is to flash back along with Jordan as he sips his Cincoro tequila and remembers his glory days in that familiar Bulls red and black, no one wants to be stuck in the past. Jordan’s 2009 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame speech still teetered on that old competitive edge. Jordan told writer Wright Thompson in a 2013 ESPN profile about often longing for his playing days even as he neared 50, and that profile opened with Jordan saying: “I always thought I would die young.”

Such was the dark backdrop for Jordan, 57, standing at the memorial for Bryant, who was 41, and sharing this: “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died.”

In the midst of a stream of consciousness, words tumbling out of him along with the tears, Jordan said: “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. I am inspired by what he has done and what he has shared with Vanessa and what he has shared with his kids.”

Jordan raved about Bryant’s creative side beyond basketball—“In retirement, he seemed so happy; he found new passions”—but the family ties were what tugged at Jordan to shuffle his to-do lists.

Jordan has three grown children and is now a grandfather. He also has twin daughters, Ysabel and Victoria, who just turned 6. They are not yet half Gianna’s age.

“I can’t wait to get home to become a ‘Girl Dad,’ “ Jordan said. “And to hug them and to see the love and the smiles they bring to us as parents. He taught me that.”

As much as Jordan taught Bryant, as much as Phil Jackson taught them both, here was Bryant as mentor.

It was appropriate. It was the person he became.

Bryant sat at his locker in Portland one day after he’d become already become a champion and then a champion again. Jordan was back again, playing in Washington, on his second comeback.

“There are only two killers in this league,” Bryant said back then.

That ruthless, relentless mindset was what distinguished Bryant for a long time. No actors could’ve played the role any better than Jordan and Bryant.

But those who worked the closest with both—Jackson and Tex Winter as coaches, Tim Grover and Chip Schaefer as trainers—reported Bryant to be more of an independent thinker. Bryant was, in probably the core difference between the men, more curious about how everything worked. It follows that the Kobe-Michael relationship was born from Bryant being a “nuisance” with his questions. It evolved into far more, obviously.

"We could talk about anything that related to basketball, but we could talk about anything that related to life,” Jordan said. “And as we grow up in life, we rarely have friends that we can have conversations like that.”

That curiosity was also the trigger behind Bryant changing more during his career. He couldn’t keep his mind closed.

He heeded the lesson from one of the many, many books Jackson continued to gift him—books Bryant devoured to improve as a leader—separate from the annual team book-giving events: “Take a lesson from nature: While rigid tree branches crack during a storm, pliable limbs bend softly.”

That was from “The Way of the Champion” by Jerry Lynch, a sports psychologist Jackson has known for decades. It sums up what Jackson tried to get through to Bryant, a lesson that would also serve him well in non-basketball pursuits.

The one thing that could still gnaw at Bryant was the perception that he was just an M.J. wannabe. Bryant saw himself as simply a dedicated student valuing every teacher he could find. And he proved it with the wide array of mentors he sought out as he neared retirement from basketball, his curiosity driving him to so many business or storytelling corners of the world.

He wasn’t obsessed with Michael. He was obsessed with maximizing Kobe.

What the behind-the-scenes footage of Bryant’s last-dance season would reflect is how open his mind became to the world around him. The unsolicited, thank-you autograph given to Glenn, the security guy in Portland. The farewell hug for Marvin—“That was a surprise,” Marvin said—the longtime usher in Oklahoma City who thought he was anonymous to opposing players.

When I kidded Bryant about having gone soft in that last season full of smiles, salutes and sweetness, he shot back: “The great white swims with a smile. The killer instinct never goes away.”

We just got to see much more to go with the killer instinct. And that includes from Jordan, as Bryant’s memorial delivered the most humanized version of Jordan the public has ever seen.

“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,” Jordan said. “Please rest in peace, little brother.”

* * *

Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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