LOS ANGELES – Maybe you didn’t know Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were close friends.
Jordan stepped on a stage at Staples Center on Monday at “The Celebration of Life” for Kobe and Gianna Bryant to let everyone know they were.
Jordan called Bryant a dear friend, and then explained the relationship, like big brother and little brother – two basketball greats with a passion to be the best and win championships.
“What Kobe Bryant was to me was an inspiration that someone truly cared about the way I played the game or the way he wanted to play the game,” Jordan said. “He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be, and as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be.”
It was a side of Jordan the public rarely sees. Even as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan is not accessible. He was barely a presence at his own All-Star weekend birthday bash in Chicago two weekends ago.
Jordan’s appearance Monday was significant. Only a tragedy like Bryant’s death could bring Jordan into the public spotlight like that.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said.
As Jordan explained in his 11-minute remembrance, they shared a bond and had an inextricable link in the history of the NBA – high-flying guards who were determined to dominate the opponent with their scoring and mental edge.
For them, losing was intolerable.
And the friendship extended beyond basketball.
Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 – Jordan’s 13th season. By then, Jordan was a four-time MVP and four-time Finals MVP with four championships. Bryant was just 18 years old, fresh out of high school.
But Bryant knew where he wanted to go, what he wanted to be and he knew Jordan could help him get there – even if it annoyed Jordan.
“He used to call me, text me 11:30, 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning, talking about post-up moves, footwork and sometimes the triangle,” Jordan said to laughter, describing Bryant’s effort to master the finer points of Phil Jackson’s famous offense that facilitated Jordan’s success and eventually led to Bryant’s.
“At first, it was an aggravation,” Jordan said. “Then, it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know.”
Two seasons after Jordan’s last title, Bryant won the first of his five championships. Jordan won six overall, Bryant five. On the all-time scoring list, Jordan is fifth, right behind Bryant who is now right behind LeBron James.
Jordan passed the torch to Bryant who passed it to James.
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Not 90 seconds into his tribute, tears ran down Jordan’s face like tiny rivulets. And with great self-awareness about his place in social media history, Jordan cracked a joke.
“Now, I have to look at another crying meme for the next … I told my wife I wasn’t going to do this because I don’t want to see that for the next three or four years. That’s what Kobe Bryant does to me,” Jordan said.
Jordan shared that it was more than a basketball relationship. It was never public. Only those two and those closest to them knew the bond.
“The thing about him we could talk about anything that related to basketball, but we could talk about anything related in life,” Jordan said. “As we grew up in life rarely we (do) have friends that we can have conversations like that. It’s even rarer when you grow up against adversaries and have conversations like that.
“I admired him because of his passion – you rarely see someone who is 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’s shared with Vanessa and what he’s shared with his kids.
“Kobe gave every last ounce of himself to whatever he was doing.”
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt