CHICAGO – Kobe Bryant’s passion to follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps was evident in his moves and his mannerisms, from his aerobatic assaults on the rim and his fadeaway jump shots to the way he walked, talked and sometimes even stuck out his tongue in mid-flight.
Bryant, sized up unofficially by the NBA and its fans as someone who might be able to take the superstar/champion/celebrity baton from Jordan deep into the Chicago Bulls legend’s career, did become a West Coast variation in purple and gold for the Los Angeles Lakers.
But for a minute, Bryant and the Bulls talked about literally making that happen. In the summer of 2004, with Bryant hitting free agency as the Phil Jackson-Shaquille O’Neal-Bryant run of four Finals appearances unraveled, Chicago looked like a possible landing spot for the Lakers’ then-25-year-old star.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and John Paxson, relatively new in retired GM Jerry Krause’s role, flew to southern California to meet with Bryant.
Paxson, currently the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, talked about that big-game safari Monday while sharing his thoughts and memories on Bryant’s tragic death. Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif.
“The things that always stand out to me after are, first of all, how smart a person he is and how mature he was even at that time,” Paxson said. “And in talking about coming to Chicago, remember, it was six years after Michael left and most guys didn’t want to follow that or try to live up to that.
“What he expressed to us was, he wanted to embrace that if it happened. He wanted that challenge.”
The notion that more mortal NBA players don’t want the burden of living up to Jordan’s impossible standards gets tossed around to this day by some in and outside the organization as an excuse for the Bulls’ limited appeal to free agents.
Bryant, at least by what he told the Bulls’ brass, was ready way back then to shoulder the mantle. Of course, he re-signed with L.A., the Lakers traded O’Neal to alleviate that tension and Bryant led the Lakers to titles in 2009 and 2010 to significantly boost his legacy – while pulling within one ring of Jordan.
Paxson, speaking to reporters two hours before the Spurs-Bulls game at United Center, said that Bulls players were shaken by Sunday’s news.
“Events like this show how connected people in sport can be, not only with a fan base but with those of us who are in the game,” Paxson said. “You didn’t have to have the greatest type of connection but just the game itself means so much to people, and the respect that the great ones have.”
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose team was playing its second game in as many nights since learning of Bryant’s death, said he would hold dear – and keep details to himself – some personal moments he had shared with Bryant.
But he added: “We all remember the on-court, but for me, the special parts will be the very few times I was able to spend time with him off the court, and have discussions with him just one-on-one.”
“We all have special thoughts of him to varying degrees, no matter if you knew him a little bit or not at all. Even the millions who admired him and cherished just knowing they could watch a game and, within minutes, you feel like he was your own. That’s what happens when you’re iconic and you’re basically a superhero.”
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