Before Kobe Bryant Became the Next Michael Jordan, He Was Shaq's Pippen

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMay 3, 2020

INGLEWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 5: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers on February 5, 1997 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1997 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — In August of 1991, Gatorade released an iconic "Be Like Mike" commercial featuring Michael Jordan, fresh off his first NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, victorious over Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant was about to turn 13.

Five years later he'd get the chance to play against his idol in Chicago at the United Center with the Lakers. Bryant only played just under 10 minutes, scoring five points as the Lakers lost 129-123. Jordan scored 30 points, but it was Scottie Pippen who led the way with 35.

Jordan was the game’s most elite scorer in history, everything Bryant aspired to be. Pippen was the engine that drove the Bulls' triangle offense and the team's best defender.

They were similar in many ways, but Jordan was in the position to be the Bulls' primary scorer from the moment he hit the NBA out of North Carolina. Bryant came into the league out of high school and was groomed to be O'Neal's Pippen.

He excelled in that role as long as he could, but he compulsively needed to see how good he could be on his own. 

"Kobe has learned a lot from studying Michael’s tricks, and we often used him as our secret weapon on defense when we needed to turn the direction of a game," Phil Jackson wrote in his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.

In the second year of the Lakers' 2000-02 three-peat, Jackson praised Bryant for his dedication to driving the team to one of the best playoff runs in NBA history (15-1).

"Kobe's become the floor leader of a basketball team ... who could not only be a scorer, but also a playmaker," Jackson said during the 2001 playoffs. "I've always held the bar up very high for Kobe, and he's not only reached that bar, but he's jumping over the top of it right now. And I think it's the best that I've ever seen a player of mine play with an overall court game. I'm asking him to do so much, and he's accomplishing it."

"I never asked Michael to be a playmaker," Jackson clarified. "That's the greatest player that I've ever had, that I could consider the greatest player in the game, and I never asked him to be a playmaker in those terms. I asked him to be a playmaker when he was doubled or tripled. But Kobe has to set up the offense, to advance the ball, to read the defense, to make other players happy, and he's doing a great job of that."

Bryant may have modeled his game after Jordan, but he was the Pippen to Shaquille O'Neal's Jordan, and he didn't like it. Months earlier, Jackson didn't want Bryant and O'Neal in the same room together.

Jackson, as reported byESPN The Magazine, had met with Bryant "to continue making O'Neal the focal point of the offense."

But Bryant didn't want to sacrifice any further.

"Turn my game down? I need to turn it up. I've improved. How are you going to bottle me up," Bryant said.

Jackson even threatened to move Bryant on to a different team if he wasn't happy in his role.

"We are a team that has to play a certain way. If we do, we're champions," Jackson said. "If we don't, we're a good team. We've got to be an inside team."

Bryant ultimately relented. In the playoffs, he found balance between his scoring (29.4 points per game) and O'Neal's (30.4). Bryant made sure the center got his shots (21.5 per game, down just a hair from 22.0 in the 2000 postseason). The All-Star guard was evolving.

2001 brought the height of the feud. But by the playoffs, O'Neal was calling Bryant his idol and the best player in the world.

Naturally, it didn't last. They won again in 2002, didn't get to the Finals in 2003 and then lost to the Detroit Pistons in 2004. Gradually the offense shifted away from O'Neal to Bryant. 

The Finals series against the Pistons looked a lot like Jordan's battles with the Isiah Thomas/Bad Boys-era Pistons. Jordan took on too much by himself. So too did Bryant (except Jordan didn't have O'Neal as a teammate).

"When we got to Detroit," Bryant said in a one-on-one conversation with O’Neal on TNT (h/t the Detroit Free Press) in 2018. "They forced us to play our offense 94 feet. We weren't ready, and we couldn't do it, and everything capitulated from there. That sits with me because we should have won that."

"Easily," O'Neal responded. "Ben Wallace guarding me?"

The Pistons dared to play O’Neal straight up with the 6’9" Wallace, but they put the rest of their energy into preventing the Lakers from even getting into their offense.

"See, the whole strategy was to move the pressure up," Bryant detailed. "If you move the pressure up, it takes away Shaquille as a threat, 'cause now you think you have to harbor the ball up the court with the pressure on the perimeter."

"So now that forces Shaq up. So if he has to catch the ball at the top of the key for our automatics, he's not in the paint. Now that takes up the seconds, all the time in the world to be able to trap him, now you have to swing it, now you're running late on clock, now you have to force up a shot. And that was their whole plan."

That’s what the players on the court saw, but from a fan perspective, Bryant dominated the ball, shot 38.1 percent from the field and ignored O’Neal (who converted 63.1 percent of his attempts when he finally got the ball in a position to score).

The Pistons took advantage of the Lakers, who were also playing through injuries to Karl Malone and Horace Grant. The conflict underlying the Lakers’ entire championship run bubbled to the surface with the team having lost two straight years.

The Detroit series was the final straw in the relationship between Bryant and O’Neal. Bryant was nearing free agency and indicating he would look to move on if the team retained O’Neal. It appeared Bryant had run off the Lakers’ franchise center, who was traded to the Miami Heat the following summer.

"You always go with the big man," former Lakers guard Norm Nixon said soon after the trade. "Always."

The reality was far more complicated, as O’Neal’s commitment to fitness dwindled from 2000 until he was reinvigorated in Miami. Late owner Jerry Buss wasn’t eager to reinvest heavily in O’Neal given his declining health. He certainly wasn’t willing to lose the younger star in Bryant.

Now, Bryant had the chance to show his individual brilliance outside of O’Neal’s giant shadow. It was only then that Bryant could truly become a Jordan clone. 

If Bryant was a hybrid of Pippen and Jordan through the Shaq era, he went full-on Jordan in the coming years. Jordan didn’t start winning championships as a rookie. He hit a wall for six straight seasons until the 1991 finals. Bryant was about to get what he asked for, for better or worse.

Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game through the 1986-87 season, taking 27.8 shots per game. The Bulls only won 40 games and were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. 

Bryant's 2005-06 campaign was similar. He averaged 35.4 points per night on 27.2 shots. In January, he exploded for 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.

The Lakers, who were a 45-win team built around a suspect supporting cast featuring Lamar Odom, Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, nearly upset the 54-win Phoenix Suns in their peak years with Steve Nash.

After Bryant scored 50 points on 35 shots in the penultimate contest, he responded to criticism that he was shooting too much by disappearing in the second half of Game 7.

That prompted a former Los Angeles Times columnist to write that Bryant could no longer be trusted: "In the seventh game of a playoff series, a game in which Bryant scored 23 points in the first half, Bryant returned to the floor with the Lakers down by 15 to take three shots and score one point. ... Some people liken Bryant to Michael Jordan, but help me here, can anyone point to a moment in Jordan's career when he tanked it with the season on the line?"

Actually, Jordan was blamed similarly in a 1989 loss to the Pistons in a pivotal Eastern Conference Finals Game 5. The L.A. Times' headline read, "Working More Magic, Jordan Disappears as Bulls Lose to Pistons."

Jordan finished with 18 points on just eight shot attempts (though he did have nine assists; Bryant had just one against the Suns).

"I just never felt I had the situation where I could take over the game and do what you all thought I was going to do," Jordan said at the time. "I'm going to say it again: I am not going to force anything. I can't shoot with their whole team on me. If the other guys hit their shots, we win, plain and simple."

Comparatively, the Bulls did hit shots (49.2 percent in the loss) and Jordan was playing with storied veterans like Horace Grant, Craig Hodges, Bill Cartwright and John Paxson. Bryant had Odom and journeymen who, outside of Bryant, converted just 24 of 75 attempts (32.0 percent).

Bryant followed up with another stellar season, averaging 31.6 points per outing, but the Lakers only won 42, drew the Suns and lost in just five games. After the year, Bryant demanded a trade that was not granted.

The following season, Bryant softened his stance and center Andrew Bynum began to emerge as a force. After he suffered a knee injury, Los Angeles traded for Pau Gasol, giving Bryant an elite beta to his alpha and the chance to truly compete.

The Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals but went on to win the following year over the Orlando Magic. Bryant took great pride in winning a championship on his own.

Last year, Bryant told The Players' Tribune's Knuckleheads podcast, "I also knew that when my career was over, they were going to chastise me. … ‘You were only great because you played with Shaq.'"

"It was important for me and Shaq to go separate ways. I didn’t want them to use that against me. They still do, but it was important that I win championships without him, and you get a glimpse of what I could have done individually had I not played with him," Bryant continued.

"This was our moment of triumph, a moment of total reconciliation that had been seven years long in coming," Jackson wrote in his book. "The look of pride and joy in Kobe's eyes made the pain we'd endured on our journey together worth it."

Jackson lauded Bryant for learning how to be a leader, a criticism he long held against him.

"He embraced the team and his teammates, calling them up when we were on the road and inviting them out to dinner," Jackson wrote. "It was as if the other players were now his partners, not his personal spear-carriers."

Jackson also wrote that Jordan was a more natural leader than Bryant, but he added that the key to Chicago's success was getting Jordan to give up the ball and play in a system. Bryant was indoctrinated into the triangle offense at an earlier age but needed some years to explore his boundaries and potential.

When Bryant was ready, through the second run, he had a deeper understanding of his role in the team concept.

Bryant's Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was one of his worst individual performances offensively, but he still found a way to contribute to the Lakers' win over the Celtics. He played almost 45 minutes, and in a game the Lakers won by dominating the boards (53-40), Bryant collected 15.

Winning by whatever means necessary—not just scoring—was an important lesson for Bryant to learn.

Jordan had so many memorable big-time shots over the course of his career, but some of his most notable plays were when he trusted a teammate in key moments, be it Steve Kerr or Paxson.

In Game 7, Bryant put the ball in Ron Artest's hands with just over a minute left for the crucial three-point shot.

After the game, Artest (who would soon rename himself Metta World Peace) exclaimed, "[Kobe] trusted us. He made us feel so good. He passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball! Kobe passed me the ball, and I shot a three!"

Ballislife.com @Ballislife

"Kobe passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball!" 9 years ago today, Ron Artest & one of the greatest NBA Championship press conferences ever! Full Video: https://t.co/xqAzD2W57h https://t.co/WBhr8XX9Y9

Bryant never made it back, suffering an Achilles tear in 2013 and retiring in 2016. He didn't catch Jordan in ring count. Bryant went to the Finals seven times and won five; Jordan went a perfect 6-0.

For a generation of players, Jordan was the best player in the history of the game. For the generation that followed, Bryant took that moniker. The outpouring when Bryant passed showed the impact he had on so many around the world. Jordan himself honored Bryant at the memorial in February.

Jordan remembered calls from Bryant (trying to be like Mike), "It was a nuisance, if I can say that word, but that nuisance turned into love over a period of time."

Bryant’s legacy will always be tied to Jordan. He came into the league a brash, young kid who could mimic Jordan as well as anyone (even on occasion sharing Jordan’s tic of sticking out his tongue on a dunk), but to many he was just a pale imitation.

That Bryant joined the league as a baby (relatively speaking) and was both blessed and forced to play with O’Neal in his prime set up a controversial run in Los Angeles. Bryant didn’t want to be Pippen. He wanted to be Jordan and broke up one of the NBA’s best all-time duos to do so.

At that time, that was a widespread perception, but it’s dimmed through the years. His titles with the Lakers long after O’Neal’s star had faded cemented Bryant’s legacy, especially the win over the rival Celtics in 2010.

Bryant was a true protege of Jordan, but he was also a student of Hakeem Olajuwon, Jerry West, Johnson and even Pippen. Especially through the first set of titles, Bryant was the primary offensive initiator in a role Jackson never asked of Jordan.

And as Bryant stole from Jordan and others, so too did Jordan.

"I know where Michael’s moves came from," Bryant said on Power 106 FM in 2013 (h/t Lakers Nation). "I know they came from David Thompson. I know they came from Dr. J. I know they came from, in particular, Jerry West. So, Michael didn’t invent the wheel. He stole a lot of moves from a lot of great players."

If there’s a common thread between Jordan and Bryant, it’s the "Mamba Mentality" or motivation to work harder than your individual talent. Both were among the most talented basketball players to play the game, but they were dedicated to learning how to perfect their craft.

"I just so happened to steal some moves from him, and I just probably stole them better than anybody else has," Bryant continued. "You have to learn from the greats that came before you; that’s how it should be done."

The game has changed significantly since Jordan’s day. Bryant became a dangerous three-point shooter, an area Jordan rarely had consistent success in an era when it was hardly a priority. Now, the three-point shot makes Bryant’s mid-range isolation game of just 10 years ago seem antiquated.

Today, stars like Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard grew up watching Bryant. They’ve helped the game evolve beyond their mentors.

In the final tally, Bryant wasn’t Jordan. He built his own legacy his way. Did it equal Jordan's in influence, if not ring count? Perhaps, but there’s no true measure. The international mourning of Bryant’s death, seeing Jordan crying at the memorial and watching highlights of Bryant’s greatest and worst career moments reveal how significant his journey was beyond being an aspiring Jordan clone.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.