Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. In the 15 seasons he played in the NBA, he accomplished everything a player possibly could, and he did it at a level no one had done it at before him. So, naturally, when at 17-year-old Kobe Bryant was drafted with the No. 13 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, he had one goal: Catch MJ, the player he modeled his game after.
By the time Bryant entered the league, Jordan had already won four of his six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. Within Bryant’s first two seasons, Jordan had won his last two. Meanwhile, Bryant was still trying to get the “airball” chants from the 1997 playoff series against the Utah Jazz out of his head.
Following his three-peat run with the Bulls, Jordan famously retired for three seasons. In his absence, Bryant, with the help of Shaquille O’Neal, quickly made his case as the league’s best shooting guard, and he did it while mimicking Jordan’s every move: The fadeaway jumpers, the gravity-defying dunks with the tongue out — Bryant had the whole package. It was during that time that Bryant and Jordan became connected forever.
However, as much as those comparisons fueled Bryant and Jordan to go at each other when they were inside the lines, they had a special bond outside of them.
“Maybe it’s a surprise to people that Kobe and I were very close friends, but we were very close friends,” a tearful Jordan said at Bryant’s memorial service at Staples Center on Monday morning. “Kobe was my dear friend, he was like a little brother. Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I — I just wanted to talk about Kobe.”
Jordan, one of the fiercest competitors the NBA has ever seen, wasn’t exactly known for taking the next generation of players under his wing, and he still isn’t to this day, but Bryant was a special case. To Jordan, Bryant was like a younger brother.
“You know, all of us have brothers and sisters, little brothers [and] little sisters, who, for whatever reason, tend to get in your stuff, your closet, your shoes — everything,” Jordan said. “It was a nuisance, if I can say that word. But that nuisance turned into love over a period of time just because of the admiration that they had for you as big brothers or big sisters. The questions. Them wanting to know every little detail about the life they were about to embark on.”
Jordan said Bryant would often call him in the late hours of the night to pick his brain about everything from Jordan’s footwork to his experience playing in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. At first, Jordan said he was “aggravated” by Bryant’s persistence, bu eventually, he learned to appreciate his unrivaled passion for the sport.
“What Kobe Bryant was to me was the inspiration that someone truly cared about the way either I played the game, or the way that he wanted to play the game,” Jordan said. “He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be, and as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be. To do that, you had to put up with the aggravation, the late night calls or the dumb questions.”
These stories of Jordan’s relationship with Bryant were supposed to be reserved for September, when Jordan was expected to induct Bryant into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Bryant will still be honored later this year, but he won’t be around to give his Hall of Fame speech.
For that reason and plenty others, it was an emotional day for everyone in the building, and for the fans watching from home or work. Jordan knew the weight of the situation would be overwhelming, and it nearly kept him from lending his voice — and face — to the memorial.
“Now, he’s got me ... I’ll have to look at another crying meme,” Jordan said as the tears began to flow down his face before being interrupted with thunderous laughter. “I told my wife I wasn’t going to do this because I didn’t want to see that for the next 3-4 years. That is what Kobe Bryant does to me.”
After lightening up the room a bit, Jordan said his sobering final goodbye to Bryant, a man he loved like brother, and the closest thing a generation of basketball fans had to Jordan himself.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died, and as I look across the arena and across the globe, a piece of you died, or else you wouldn’t be here,” Jordan said. “Those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from. 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.”