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Column: Kobe Bryant’s sincerity turned him from Michael Jordan’s ‘little Laker boy’ to a friend

Michael Jordan Kobe Bryant.
Michael Jordan ridiculed Kobe Bryant during the early part of the Lakers star’s budding career. Bryant, however, would eventually earn Jordan’s respect.
(Vince Bucci / AFP via Getty Images)

In February, while delivering a stunning eulogy at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Michael Jordan cried.

On Sunday, in an equally revealing moment involving the two NBA legends, Michael Jordan ripped him.

It was in a video from 1998, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, before the first NBA All-Star game featuring both men. Jordan, sitting in the East locker room, was chasing down his sixth championship. Bryant, sitting down the hall in the West locker room, was a 19-year-old prodigy whose self-assurance was resented by his peers.

In a striking scene that leads off the fifth episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” — a documentary series on the final season of Jordan with the Chicago Bulls — Jordan openly mocks the new kid.

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“That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one,” he says to big laughs.

(Yes, Jordan once referred to Bryant as a “little Laker boy.”)

“He don’t let the game come to him … he just go out there and take it,” said Jordan, who then imitated Bryant by saying with an expletive, ‘I’m gonna make this ... happen, I’m going to make this a one-on-one game.’”

(Yes, Jordan actually imitated him.)

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Another voice in the locker room is heard from an unseen person, apparently talking about a previous experience with Bryant, saying, “I figured after the first four attempts didn’t go in, he was gonna chill.”

This really got Jordan going, and he profanely exclaims, “After the first four attempts? If I was his teammate, I wouldn’t pass him the ... ball.”

“You want this ball again, brother,” he added, “you better rebound.”

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(Yeah, he actually said he would never pass him the ball.)

The disrespect continued during the All-Star game, as the cameras caught Jordan trashing Bryant on the bench to teammates during a timeout.

“He just wants to go to the offensive end and go one-on-one,” Jordan announced. “I’m gonna make his ass work down there.”

After the game, during which Jordan was the MVP and outscored Bryant 23-18 while playing 10 more minutes, the two men briefly hugged with Jordan saying pleasantly, “I’ll see you down the road.”

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But by then, the curtain had been pulled back and the message was clear. Jordan was not willing to share the road with Bryant. Jordan was not his friend.

The video revealed Jordan greeting Bryant’s debut with the same mean-spirited pettiness that marked his treatment of anyone he considered a challenger to his status. Jordan simply didn’t like him, and wasn’t going to easily accept him.

Jordan was far from alone — most of the NBA’s veterans resented Bryant’s confidence and mocked him behind his back — but it was Jordan who cruelly set the tone for what became a career of near-isolation for Bryant.

So how, in 22 years, did Bryant go from being the object of Jordan’s ridicule to the focus of Jordan’s tears? How can a “little Laker boy” become someone about whom Jordan later said, “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died?”

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Michael Jordan at Kobe Bryant’s memorial.

It was all Kobe. It was quietly, almost secretly, one of his greatest accomplishments. It epitomized his evolution as a person and led to the general outpouring of affection upon his death.

Instead of pushing back against Jordan, Bryant reached out. Instead of showering him with bitterness, Bryant showed only respect. It was eventually how he treated many of those whom he admired throughout his life. If he thought he could learn from you, despite your criticisms of him, he would seek you out and embrace your wisdom and grow from his mistakes.

Jordan was the first and prime example of this underrated willingness of Bryant to humble himself. Even as Jordan was surely ripping him around the NBA, Bryant was coming to him for help, asking for advice on everything from footwork to shot selection to strategy. Even as Jordan showed little interest in mentoring or tutoring anyone who might one day surpass him. Bryant continued to bug him, so much that he actually started imitating him. Look at old videos, listen to the old interviews — Bryant not only shoots and moves like Jordan, sometimes he even sounds like him, complete with the cursing.

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Bryant countered Jordan’s resentment with deference and admiration, and eventually he forged a brotherhood whose powerful existence was a testament to Bryant’s resilience as a person. In trying to be like Mike, he finally won over Mike.

Their hidden connection first came to light during February’s Staples Center memorial service for Bryant, who was killed in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna and seven others.

In an event in which neither Magic Johnson nor Phil Jackson nor Jerry West spoke, Jordan surprisingly took the podium, to a standing ovation from a shocked crowd, and he quickly broke the secret.

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

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Kobe Bryant, left, and Michael Jordan talk during a break in action between the Lakers and Washington Wizards
Kobe Bryant, left, and Michael Jordan talk during a break in action between the Lakers and Washington Wizards in March 2003.
(Gerard Burkhart / Getty Images)

Jordan then explained the germination of their friendship, which basically involved Bryant asking and Jordan answering.

“He used to call me, text me, 11:30, 12:30, 3 in the morning talking about post-up moves, footwork and sometimes the triangle,” he said. “At first it was an aggravation but then it turned into a certain passion.”

Jordan talked about eventually buying into the idea of being Bryant’s big brother because Bryant was so sincere in his journey.

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“And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother I could be,” he said. “To do that, you have to put up with the aggravation, the late night calls or the dumb questions … we talked about everything. He was just trying to be a better person.”

In this era of Twitter fights and trash talk, it is hard to imagine a young Kobe Bryant stepping over the insults to embrace one of his tormentors, but, truly, he was just trying to be a better person. Furthermore, when Bryant had a chance to lash back at Jordan’s locker-room banter in an interview that was shown Sunday as part of the documentary, he was just as classy.

“It was a rough couple of years for me coming into the league because at the time the league was so much older; it’s not as young as it is today, so nobody was really thinking much of me,” he told the interviewer. “I was a kid that shot a bunch of air balls.”

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Then he talked about how he approached Jordan anyway.

“At that point, Michael provided a lot of guidance for me,” he said. “Like, I had a question about shooting his turnaround shot so I asked him about it and he gave me a great, detailed answer but, on top off that, he said if you ever need anything, give me a call.”

He then said something he’s never said publicly, acknowledging Jordan’s role in a way few ever imagined.

“He’s my big brother,” he said. “I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one ... I’m like, ‘Yo, what you get from me is from him.’ I don’t get five championships here without him because he guided me so much, he gave me so much great advice.”

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And they said that “little Laker boy” would never pass the ball ...


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