'Hello, Mr. Jordan': How Young Kobe Worked Up the Nerve to Be Like MikeMay 2, 2020
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant didn't cross paths on the court often. One had already secured his legacy while the other frantically chased his silhouette by the time the pair met at the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden.
That moment tied the two icons together in a way that felt inevitable at the time and poignant after.
"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," said Jim Cleamons, an assistant for both MJ's Bulls and Kobe's Lakers. "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."
Bryant spent his childhood idolizing Magic Johnson, adorning his bedroom wall with a poster of the Lakers great and dreaming of a day he would be a Laker himself. But as his dream of playing in the NBA came closer to fruition, Jordan's Bulls had grown into a dynasty, and Jordan became the player Bryant most often imitated, patterned himself after and hoped to eventually eclipse.
"I just remember Kobe, the way he talked, the way he acted, it was like he tried to mimic Michael's movements, his speech patterns," said Tony Dileo, a scout for the 76ers who came to know Kobe back when Bryant's family relocated to Pennsylvania when he was a teen. A few years back, Dileo recounted for me the similarities he saw between Bryant and Jordan and how he had arranged for a meeting between the two.
"You could tell he really looked up to Michael," Dileo said. "He wanted to emulate him."
Bryant became a phenom at Lower Merion High School, often holding his own as a high schooler during pickup games against members of the 76ers.
"People thought back then that the Michael Jordan comparisons were crazy," his high school coach, Gregg Downer, told me near the end of Bryant's playing career. "Some people may even think that today, but I saw it right away. ... I thought that he was almost a clone of Jordan, a 6'6" guy who can do it all with incredible competitive DNA. A lot of people don't want to talk about that comparison or think it's lopsided, but I'm not one of those people."
Soon, though, it became clear to those who watched Bryant play that he wasn't merely a new iteration of Jordan but potentially would have to face his template.
John Lucas, the 76ers' coach when Bryant was still in high school, once recalled telling him to arrive at a game in Philadelphia early to greet Jordan.
"Kobe comes in and he goes, 'Hello, Mr. Jordan,'" Lucas said. "And I said to him, 'If you're coming out to the league next year, you can't be calling him Mr. Jordan.'"
It didn't take long for those types of formalities to end. At the 1998 All-Star Game, Bryant was eager to go after and measure himself against Jordan. Bryant earned the All-Star bid, his first, at the age of 19 to become the youngest player to appear in the game. As this weekend's installment of ESPN's The Last Dance, the 10-part docuseries capturing the dominance and spectacle of Jordan's Chicago Bulls, makes clear, Jordan and his fellow All-Stars were well aware of his presence.
"That Laker boy's gonna take everybody one-on-one," Jordan says to Miami's Tim Hardaway in the locker room during a scene captured in the fifth episode.
Later, during the game, Jordan tells his teammates: "He just wants to get to the offensive end and go one-on-one. I'm gonna make his ass work down here [on defense]."
Said Cleamons: "I think Kobe always saw himself as a scorer first. It's not the fact that he couldn't pass it and make good passes when he wanted to. It's just that he just grew up with a scorer's mentality and that was who he was. He was a gunslinger."
The duel, which Jordan won with a 23-point, six-rebound MVP performance that guided the East to a win (as Bryant scored 18), captured the attention not only of fans, but also players on the court.
"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," Del Harris, his first coach in Los Angeles, once told me. "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."
Harris was struck by how seriously Bryant prepared for battle each night. "He was always looking at basketball things on his computer," Harris said. "In those days, we did not have the DVDs of games to take with us right after the game, no iPads, etc. But he had plenty of DVDs from our earlier games, or of the next team or of Jordan. He was a total student of the game."
Much as he had seen that type of dedication with Jordan in Chicago, Cleamons saw how Bryant's game developed too. Cleamons caught both Bryant and Jordan at interesting points in their careers. Neither had won a championship yet, and both seemed obsessed with leaping over the hurdles of their competition.
"There's a reason certain people are going to go down in archives as tremendous players," Cleamons said, "because they're also very good human beings and how they deal with adversity, how they deal with their sport and how they carry themselves. That's what's really important. That's what Kobe did at the end of his career."
For both to rise above individual greatness into building a storied legacy, however, Cleamons noted they had to learn to blend their talents with the teams around them.
"The first few years, I think it was, to Kobe, 'All about me,'" Cleamons said. "The ball would be on one side of the floor, and before the first pass is made, Kobe's on the same side of the floor with the ball. Kobe would just break the play and, 'Hey, I'm open. Pass me the ball.' They started bypassing him. They'd overlook him. Then he'd be chasing the ball from one side to the other like he was a mosquito in the hot of summertime. ... [But] we had a mature group. They'd tell Kobe, 'We got an offense, we need to run it to get you the ball. Be patient, be patient, be patient.' So Kobe started understanding."
It was a lesson Bryant also learned from Jordan, who needed time to embrace it himself.
"At the end of the episode [when] they talked about Michael finding [John Paxson in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals], Michael's game from that point on changed," Cleamons said. "He saw that he didn't have to do it all. He trusted Pax, and then he and BJ Armstrong had a little thing, and then he and Steve Kerr had a little thing. Michael began to trust his good shooters because every day we'd shoot the ball and he'd see these guys knock down shots. We had one team meeting—I'll never forget this—Michael was the bailout guy. He got pissed off and he said: 'You guys got skills too. If you didn't have skills, you wouldn't be here. Quit giving me the ball with four seconds on the clock. I can't make everything. You guys got talent. That's why you're here.'"
Time and titles brought Jordan and Bryant together over the years, creating a mutual respect, and reverence, over their shared thirst to win above all else. Bryant's fondness for Jordan is clear in The Last Dance episode that airs Sunday, which includes one of his final sitdown interviews before a helicopter crash killed him, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
Jordan left no doubt about his feelings earlier this year when he emotionally addressed the audience at Kobe and Gianna's memorial. He disclosed how close the pair had grown over the years and that Bryant often picked his mind and stole his moves.
"Maybe it would surprise people that Kobe and I are very close friends," Jordan said. "Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother."
Jordan went on: "He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. As I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.