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Michael Jordan bares the secret behind relationship with ‘little brother’ Kobe Bryant

Michael Jordan pauses for a moment during his tearful speech about “little brother” Kobe Bryant.
Michael Jordan pauses for a moment during his tearful speech about “little brother” Kobe Bryant.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Tears left a trail down the center of basketball’s most famous face when Michael Jordan divulged a secret that not many people inside or outside the NBA had any clue about.

We always knew what Jordan meant to Kobe Bryant. Through the former Chicago Bulls star’s gravelly voice and red eyes Monday at Staples Center, we got to hear and see what Bryant meant to him.

“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” Jordan said. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother.”

Details about Monday’s service were scarce. As people walked into the darkened Staples Center, the purple lighting focused down at a stage in the middle, no one knew what was about to come — the program for the memorial featured no list of speakers or schedule of tributes.

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That’s why the crowd that gathered to celebrate Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s lives and once again mourn their deaths buzzed when they heard the ceremony would open with a performance from Beyoncé. After that, they marveled at the courage and strength of Vanessa Bryant as she delivered the day’s most powerful memories.

Jordan? This was a shock.

It was the kind of appearance, the kind of speech, that he rarely makes. While the NBA celebrated Bryant along with the history of Chicago basketball this month during All-Star weekend, Jordan only appeared in a pre-taped segment. Last season, when the All-Star game was hosted by Charlotte, the team Jordan owns, he hosted a news conference before most media arrived in town.

There was something special between Bryant and Jordan, the player who served as the brash high schooler’s muse. Bryant’s mannerisms and on-court mechanics were so clearly derived from Jordan that chunks of Jordan’s fan base resented Bryant for it.

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Read Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s speech about the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant from memorial at Staples Center.

The two players were connected and will be forever — the player comparison tool for basketball-reference.com uses Jordan v. Bryant as a template. NBA championships? Jordan’s got Bryant six to five. Points? Bryant’s got Jordan 33,643 to 32,292. Jordan wore No. 23. Bryant finished his career wearing No. 24.

Depending on how you time it, it took 23 to 24 seconds for Jordan’s voice to crack under the weight of sorrow Monday as he tried to illuminate how a presumed rivalry could spawn a friendship.

Bryant asked a lot of questions. He sought tips on his jump shot, he wanted to know about footwork, asking about the tiniest details of his game. He wanted to dig into Jordan’s mind and mine as much information as possible, so he asked — no matter how late at night.

“At first, it was an aggravation,” Jordan admitted. “But then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion that you would never know. It’s an amazing thing about passion. If you love something, if you have a strong passion for something, you would go to the extreme to try to understand or try to get it. … If you have to walk, you will go get it. If you have to beg someone, you will go get it.”

Bryant, it turns out, begged Jordan, breaking him down and becoming dear friends with the man who set the standard he was determined to be judged against.

“I remember what Babe Ruth said,” Bryant once said. “He swings big, he misses big. Same thing with me.”

Trying to not only be like Jordan, but to best him, that’s a hell of a big swing.

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Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death suit against the company that operated the helicopter that crashed, killing Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others.

These two men are different. If you listen to Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech from 2009, it’s obvious that he was driven to prove people wrong. Listen to Jordan talk about Bryant, it’s obvious that Kobe was driven by figuring out what he could eventually become.

“To me, that’s what I loved about the kid. Absolutely loved the game,” Jordan said. “No matter where he saw me, it was a challenge.”

As Jordan walked to the stage Monday, before he uttered a single word, before the world saw him shed some tears and before everyone laughed at the next “Crying Jordan” meme being born, the fans at Staples Center rose to their feet to applaud.

Over the next 12 or so minutes, Jordan delivered, baring his soul and letting the world in on a friendship that only a few knew about.

“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said, his voice draped in anguish. “And as I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died or else you wouldn’t be here. Those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from. I promise you from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing that I had a little brother that I tried to help in every way I could. Please rest in peace, little brother.”

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