Michael Jordan made a lot of enemies on the court. His competitive nature and dominant run through the NBA made him a rather frustrating foe in the eyes of many who were pitted up against him in his time.
But by the time MJ’s basketball journey was nearing its end in 1996, a new star was already on the rise: Kobe Bean Bryant.
The two barely existed in the NBA at the same time, but there was mutual respect on both ends that transcended basketball itself.
The story begins as early as Bryant’s rookie season. As a young stud looking to hone and master his game, Bryant saw interactions with Michael as an opportunity.
THEIR FRIENDSHIP BEGAN just like Jordan said it did: Bryant pestered him enough that Jordan finally gave in and engaged.
That dynamic was illustrated in Episode 5 of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part docuseries on Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, which aired Sunday on ESPN.
In games against Jordan and the Bulls, Kobe would literally wait outside the tunnel for his chance to speak with Mike.
“As early as I can remember, whenever the Lakers played the Bulls, Kobe would wait outside the tunnel for Michael to leave,” said Tim Grover, a personal trainer who worked with Jordan in Chicago and later with Bryant in Los Angeles. “And Michael was always the last person to leave the locker room. He took forever. But Kobe would wait and wait for him.”
“Kobe was like, ‘The bus is going to have to wait. Because I don’t know when I’m going to get this opportunity.'”
Bryant didn’t care. He’d wait as long as he had to. And when Jordan came out from the locker room, always immaculately suited, Bryant would start peppering him with questions about footwork or turnaround jumpers.
Grover would hang back and let Jordan and Bryant have their privacy as they walked out together. Sometimes he’d notice them stop, as Jordan would demonstrate a particular skill for Bryant.
Their friendship began with Kobe waiting outside the locker room for his idol, but it became so much more.
— ESPN (@espn) May 4, 2020
At first, Jordan admittedly considered Bryant an annoyance. But eventually, he came to appreciate Kobe’s passion and dedication to the game. Bryant had a certain Jordan-esque will-power about him.
“There’s a bunch of other athletes that came up to Michael, that wanted him to ‘mentor them,'” Grover said. “But when they found out how difficult it was to maintain that intensity and to be that relentless, most of them faded out.
“But Kobe kept it up. The more information that Michael gave him, Kobe got even more thirst.”
Bryant would consume every piece of advice, work through every lesson Jordan offered. Then, like an eager student, he’d report back and ask for a new assignment.
Jordan saw something in him — likey that same drive and passion that he, himself, had so much of.
When Jordan gave Bryant his number, Grover knew that really meant something. He had seen Jordan give other players the number to the team’s security guards or a friend, who would then not put them in touch with him. It’s not that Jordan didn’t care or want to help. There’s just only so much time and so few people who were actually capable of doing something with his advice.
“You had to earn the right to have that conversation,” Grover said. “So with Kobe, Michael would have not taken the next call if he didn’t see something in him.”
“He used to call me, text me 11:30, 2:30, 3 in the morning,” Michael said. “At first, it was an aggravation, but then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know.”
Of course, it was only two short years later that Jordan would retire from the NBA, but Bryant continues to seek him about as the young stud grew in fame and recognition.
The first time was when Lakers coach Phil Jackson asked Jordan to meet with Bryant and talk to him about how to be patient playing the triangle offense.
Later, when Jordan returned for the 2001 season as a member of the Washington Wizards, he’d visit Bryant and Jackson in the Lakers’ locker room after games.
That might seem like a small detail. But for Jordan to visit the opposing locker room was an enormous sign of respect.
“By the time [Jordan] was in Washington, now all of a sudden the Lakers have won a couple of titles and Kobe’s really established who he is as a player,” said former Bulls and Lakers trainer Chip Schaefer. “So you combine that with Michael, who is sort of transitioning into this more graceful elder statesman role.”
Bryant’s growth in both mental maturity and basketball IQ allowed him and Michael to have more advanced talks, which included a chat about the necessity of tough love
Bryant was still the little brother in the relationship, but he had grown tall enough in stature that they could have different types of conversations.
“How do you get a group of guys to be on the same page and get them to that place to win a championship?” Bryant recalled in his interview for the documentary. “About dealing with teammates that care about all the wrong things. Teammates that are not as physical, but yet, we’re going up against a team that is nothing but physical. How do you bring them along?”
“Fast-forward years from now,” Bryant remembered Jordan saying. “Nobody’s going to look at it and say, OK, [you] lost because that person had a bad attitude. Nobody’s going to say that. They’re going to say that you weren’t able to get it done. So, you have to figure it out. Come hell or high water, you’ve got to figure it out.”
Of course, the mental and behind-the-scenes aspect of the game was only part of Bryant’s study of Jordan. He studied his moves and often adapted them into his own arsenal. By the time Bryant had built up a legacy of his own, it was almost as if he was a Jordan incarnate.
Toward the end of his NBA career, Bryant looked to Jordan to help him move on from the game he loved so much.
Was there anything he could do after basketball that would fill him with as much passion and purpose as the game had?
He didn’t want to retire and unretire twice as Jordan had. He didn’t want to leave the game but still be close to it as a coach or an owner. He needed something totally new to throw himself into, not something that reminded him of his past glories.
He started talking to Jordan about it. Who else would understand how hard it was to let go?
But, obviously, the relationship between Bryant and Jordan was more than that of student and teacher. They were friends who had a deep and profound relationship. This point may not have been made clearer than after Bryant’s death in January of this year.
When he learned that Jordan had the rights to footage shot of his final season, Bryant commissioned a camera crew to film his final seasons. Bryant even inquired about producing the documentary on Jordan’s final season.
But this was Jordan’s story to tell. And he dedicated Episode 5 of “The Last Dance” to Bryant, who died along with eight others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
“I admired him,” Jordan said in his eulogy. “Because of his passion. You rarely see someone who’s looking and trying to improve each and every day, not just in sports, but as a parent, as a husband.
“I am inspired by what he’s done and what he shared with Vanessa and what he’s shared with his kids.”
Kobe Bryant was an inspiration to many, including Michael Jordan. Driven by his desire to be the best person (and ballplayer) he could be, Kobe was a guy who believed in the value of passion, hard work, and dedication to one’s craft.
His relationship with Michael proves it.