It’s not hard to see all the ways Kobe Bryant was influenced by Michael Jordan. From the moment Bryant joined the Lakers, the little aesthetic similarities between the two were on full display, from the smoothness of their glides to the basket to other tiny mannerisms.
YouTube is filled with compilations of these small historical echoes, with countless clips of Bryant almost exactly mimicking something he saw in the way Jordan carried himself.
Every kid wanted to be “Like Mike” — so much so that Nike made an iconic ad campaign about it — but very few possessed what it took to achieve that basketball dream. And no matter where one thinks Bryant ranks among the all-time greats of the game, it’s nearly impossible to argue that he didn’t get closer than any player before or since to dominating in the same style that Jordan did.
As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly an accident. It was well known for a long time that Bryant had tried to incorporate parts of MJ’s game into his own. You didn’t need to look any further than his highlights to see that. But what wasn’t covered much, at least not until Bryant’s tragic passing earlier this year, was just how close to two greatest shooting guards in basketball history were off the court.
In a heartfelt speech at Bryant’s celebration of life, Jordan revealed to the world for the first time that Bryant was “a dear friend,” and “like a little brother” to him. It was obviously known they knew each other before that, but it was the first time the extent of their relationship had been publicly acknowledged. In the months since, it’s come out how even as a rookie, Bryant would fight for time to learn from Jordan, even making the Lakers’ team bus wait so that he could get a few minutes with his idol.
Those conversations over the years led to Bryant’s success at encapsulating a lot of what Jordan brought to the floor, but as much as their games could appear to be carbon copies of each other at times, there were differences between the two men as well. Over the last several weeks, some of the people who knew them both well have discussed those similarities and differences at some length for the first time.
Tim Grover, who worked as Jordan’s trainer before beginning to help Bryant in 2007, told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN that the biggest variation between the two was the way their legendary work ethics manifested:
“Kobe needed to know everything,” Grover said. “He wanted to know why we did this exercise? Why this many reps? Why this? Why that? Kobe, he was always, ‘Why, why, why?’ Because he was a student. He was learning.
“Michael was just like, ‘I hired you to do a job. Just get me the end result. I don’t need to know why I’m doing this, what’s going on. But when I do ask, you better have the answer.’”
Both men had a relentless drive and work ethic. But Bryant’s seemed to come from a different well.
“Michael knew when enough was enough,” Grover said. “Like, ‘OK, I got to shut my body down. I need to relax.’ With Kobe, it was the complete opposite. If he couldn’t sleep, Kobe was like, ‘My time is being wasted. I need to go to the gym and get some shots up.’”
But according to Jim Cleamons, who was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson with both the Bulls and Lakers (and thus worked with both Bryant and Jordan), in the end their approaches were more similar than different (via Jonathan Abrams of Bleacher Report):
“I often tell people that they’re cut from the same cloth, and that cloth in my mind is a certain competitiveness, a will to work, acceptance that if I’m going to work on something, I’m going to master it... Not afraid to fail, and more importantly, they’re willing to try to improve. I think that if you told M or Kobe he couldn’t do something, they’re going to work on it to prove you wrong.”
As one would expect, that competitiveness even translated into a friendly back-and-forth in their relationship. This wasn’t all Jordan as Bryant’s proverbial Mr. Miyagi. Even as much as both of them have talked openly about how much they disliked the public discourse over which of them was better, Jordan’s former Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong — who shared an agent with Bryant and thus ended up at dinner with him and Jordan — revealed to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press that in private, the two legends would have the same debates that fueled sports talk for nearly 20 years of Bryant’s career:
“They were playing a virtual game of 1-on-1 at dinner,” Armstrong said. “I just sat there and listened to them talk about the love they had for the game. They were so sophisticated; they were talking about footwork, how they conditioned themselves, how they would box out. The detail that they had, the respect that they had for the game ... I wish I could have seen them play in their prime.”
On some level we all wish that, although at the same time, maybe it’s fine that we didn’t. After all — as our own Anthony Irwin noted on one of our recent podcasts — if Bryant was a Jordan contemporary, Jordan may not have so readily mentored him, and Bryant may not have easily reached the heights he ultimately reached. We’ll never know the answer to any such hypotheticals, of course, but in the end, perhaps it’s just better to appreciate what we have while we have it rather than to dwell on theoretical matchups we didn’t get. The Bryant/Jordan relationship was a special one, and for now, I’m just grateful for how much we’ve been able to learn about it as we all continue to grieve a legend who was taken from us far too soon, as well as for the insight we’ve been able to gain into both of their approaches to the game, and life in general.