Jordan was very clear not to call it a “showdown” out of respect for the other players involved in the game, as he told Ahmad Rashad at halftime. However, if the 19-year-old Bryant wanted to go one-on-one with the soon-to-be 35-year-old legend, Jordan would absolutely defend himself.
Despite their efforts to downplay it, the duel between the two shooting guards was the marquee attraction for the rest of the All-Stars. Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd, a reserve for the Western Conference in 1998, said on ESPN’s “Hoop Streams” that is what he remembers most from his second All-Star game. Bryant was so insistent on going after Jordan that he offended the reigning league MVP in the process:
“The biggest thing that stood out was Kobe was going to go after Michael, and he wasn't scared. One of the plays that I will never forget, and you can ask Karl Malone about it someday, is that he asked for a pick-and-roll and Kobe waved him off, and I think we were all in awe or shock. That’s Karl Malone, pick-and-roll with John Stockton, they’ve done it a million times, so Kobe and Karl. And Kobe was like, ‘no no no I got this all by myself’, and he waved Karl out and he did his thing. And I think Karl was like, ‘okay I need to come out of the game because this has passed me now.’
“For you to just have the nerve to wave Karl off, even if he wasn’t the MVP, just because of his muscles, you had to be different. And so on the bench we were all in tears and laughing and giving Karl a hard time about ‘you must have not set a good screen.’ But it just showed Kobe’s determination to be the best, and he wanted to be the next Michael Jordan if not better. He wanted that one-on-one challenge, and he didn’t feel like he needed Karl’s help at the time.”
According to Kidd’s recollection, the players on the Western Conference bench were amazed by Bryant’s gall, but Malone didn’t have such a positive reaction. The poor guy, in his first All-Star Game without John Stockton by his side, just wanted to run his favorite action, and Bryant wouldn’t let him. Del Harris, the Lakers coach at the time, once told author Jonathan Abrams that Malone was “incensed”.
“He caused a ruckus in that game when he waved Karl Malone out of the low post so he could go one-on-one on the wing. Malone was so incensed that he said he didn’t ever want to play in another All-Star Game if he was going to be chased out of the post by a kid.”
I have re-watched the 1998 All-Star Game almost three times trying to determine which play set off Malone so thoroughly. This is what I have landed on.
In Bryant’s defense, I’m not entirely sure why Malone thought Bryant would pass on the chance to isolate on Jordan when that side of the floor is essentially clear for Bryant. That’s entirely unreasonable for Malone to expect. If it makes Malone feel any better, at least Bryant missed the shot and finished the game with 18 points compared to Jordan’s 23.
It’s possible that Bryant and Malone’s relationship when they were teammates six years later was colored by this encounter, and before you deem that too petty, think about Jordan and Isiah Thomas and the freeze-out in 1985. It’s crazy to think that the 1998 West starters were almost identical to the 2003-04 Lakers starters, with Kevin Garnett as a mild upgrade on Devean George.
Regardless of what Malone thought of Bryant’s play, Kidd thought that Jordan appeared impressed with the “little Laker boy”, and that’s all that really mattered.
“That was normally MJ’s way of not giving you any respect is not by calling you by your name. He called him ‘Laker boy’ until he earned his respect, and I think at the end of Kobe’s career, he was calling him Kobe.”
Jordan told Bryant after the game that he would see him down the road, and we know that they developed a true friendship to the point of considering each other brothers. Maybe that only happens because a 19-year-old Bryant dared to go after Jordan on one of the game’s biggest stages.