After the 1998 NBA All-Star game, Bryant’s first, the stars meet for a glimmer at midcourt, with Bryant giving Jordan a respectful tap and Jordan telling the brash teen, “I’ll see you down the road.”
That road winds all the way until Feb. 24 of this year, when Jordan tearfully eulogized Bryant at Staples Center. Before tragedy defined the final chapter in their relationship, there was another night at Staples Center punctuating it — one when even the referees wanted to see Bryant and Jordan spar one last time.
Before Bryant and Jordan would play each other for the final time on March 28, 2003, NBA officials Mark Wunderlich, Gary Zielinski and Bob Delaney looked at the rosters for the night’s assignment.
“Will they play each other?” Wunderlich wondered and repeated. “Will they end up playing each other?
“… You have two generational players, one at the end of his career and one at the height of his career. It was two heavyweights — one retiring, one right at the top of his game.”
Jordan and Bryant didn’t really guard each other, but for the people who shared the court with them that Friday night, it was clear how their careers eventually would run parallel.
“The mannerisms were definitely there. The similarities on the court were definitely there,” former Lakers forward Mark Madsen said last week. “And to be honest, being in the locker room with Kobe during that matchup and through the course of three years, I sensed two things. One, it was an unbelievable respect that Kobe had for Jordan. And I sensed and observed how Kobe emulated Jordan in some ways. But Kobe was an individual. He wanted to carve his own niche, write his own narrative and create his own legacy.”
In 2003, there wasn’t a question who was the better player.
Bryant, 24, had been ripping through the regular season, scoring 40 or more in nine consecutive games in February and 11 of 13.
Against the Washington Wizards that night, he was even better.
“Kobe, he was sick,” Wunderlich remembered. “What he was doing, he wasn’t even looking at the basket. It was nuts.”
In a flash, Bryant scored 30 of the Lakers’ first 38 points, impervious to whomever the Wizards used to try to slow him down. Twenty minutes into the game, Bryant had 40, ensuring that any torch wouldn’t need to be passed — he had seized it.
He finished with 55 points — something Jordan hadn’t done in six years.
“It’s funny. As a referee you’d look at the defender’s face after Kobe makes a basket and just see all the life go out of him,” Zielinski said. “The funniest thing about a defender is when they won’t even look at the shooter. And none of them would look at Kobe. They’d just run down to the other end.”
As Bryant became more accomplished, Madsen would see it whenever Bryant would get to test an inexperienced opponent.
“Just that awe factor. You’d see young players come into the game, get ready to guard him and you’d see them gulp,” said Madsen, now the coach at Utah Valley. “You could tell they were nervous.”
Jordan, 40, still could play, but he couldn’t carry a team like he did in Chicago.
Jordan scored 17 of his 23 points in the first half — fueled by the Wizards’ late playoff push, but his teammates saw more, a fire that burned inside long before Jordan reached the NBA.
“The way that Mike acknowledged [Kobe], the way he played and competed, it was a sight to see,” said Bobby Simmons, who was a rookie.
Former Wizards star Gilbert Arenas recalled Jordan telling Bryant earlier that season that he might be able to wear his shoes — Bryant was a sneaker free agent at the time often playing in Air Jordans — but he’d never be able to fill them.
While that turned out to be true, Bryant came closest.
“Kobe demanded things from everybody, demanded a certain way to play, and held guys accountable. And I laugh because a lot of people would be like, ‘He’s doing the Kobe clap.’ And I’d say, ‘Michael Jordan was doing that clap a long time ago,’ ” Simmons said.
There were just so many similarities — the way they walked, the double-wide armband on the non-shooting arm, the effortless flick of the wrist on jumpers, the gliding through the air. Even the way they fought for calls.
“The first three quarters, they would nibble at you. They would complain. They would give you what they thought on plays,” Wunderlich said. “But in that fourth quarter, they both had that assassin mentality where you were a part of the game, but they weren’t going to get involved with you. It was just them and the other team and they phased you out.”
There was also the footwork and intricate movements.
As a young official coming up through pro basketball’s minor leagues, Zielinski made extra money working Bulls training camps, seeing Jordan workshop those moves. Years later, he’d see them again.
“You’d watch Michael invent it and Kobe try to develop it,” he said.
Bryant, in the buildup to that game, downplayed that mirroring.
“You guys know how much I admire and respect Michael, how much he’s taught me about the game. Sometimes, things move on. I’m not going to be teary-eyed over his last performance in L.A.,” he said. “You guys are going to keep comparing until you’re blue in the face. I think the comparisons are starting to die down. I think people are realizing the differences between us two. It’s kind of funny now ... ‘Uh-oh, he scratched his head, just like Michael!’ ”
With Jordan on his way out and Bryant on his way up, their last meeting showed all of that, with Bryant looking like an evolved version of Jordan. That game, Bryant made nine three-pointers. Jordan never made more than seven in a game.
“In every good karate flick, in order for the student to become the man, he has to kill the teacher,” Shaquille O’Neal said after the game.
But in one of their last interactions as competitors, before Jordan checked out and the crowd gave him a standing ovation, Bryant and Jordan couldn’t help but show how similar they were.
As Bryant barreled up the sideline, Jordan slid over and planted his feet and took a shot from Bryant to the chest, knocking him down. Zielinski called the charge and then watched as Bryant stood over Jordan.
“And then he starts swinging at him. And as a referee, you don’t know,” Zielinski remembered of Bryant’s playful punches. “You don’t want to overreact. And then you realize the two people that are involved, and I just said to myself, ‘They’re just having a good, ol’ moment right now.’ ”
Bryant left the court through the tunnel closest to the Lakers’ bench. Jordan slowly walked off toward the opposite end.
There were no goodbyes. Those would have to wait for the day when the road they shared stopped so suddenly.