Kobe Bryant never made any secret of his admiration for Michael Jordan, and you could see it every time he stepped on the floor. Nobody has ever been able to replicate Jordan's moves the way Kobe did. The fadeaway jumper. The footwork. But it wasn't just Kobe's physical attributes that reminded us of Jordan. It was the way he approached the game. The killer mentality. The relentless drive. The unwavering confidence regularly bleeding into the realm of arrogance.
A lot of guys say they're the best.
Kobe believed it in his soul.
The fifth episode of "The Last Dance" -- ESPN's 10-part documentary chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls -- begins at the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, where Kobe was making his first appearance and Jordan, it was speculated at the time, was making his last. It's a particularly nostalgic, and in many ways jarring moment given Bryant's recent passing.
Kobe, though he wasn't a true star yet (he wasn't even a starter for the Lakers in his second season), had everyone's attention by 1998, including Jordan, who's seen making a handful of comments about young Kobe in the locker room.
"That little Laker boy's gonna take everybody one on one," Jordan says. "... He don't let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it. He just go out there and take it. 'I'm gonna make this s--- happen. I'm going to make this a one-on-one game.' ... If I was his teammate, I wouldn't pass him the f--ing ball. You want this ball again brother, you better rebound."
It's a particular taste of irony to hear Jordan, who once took 49 shots in a single game, cracking on Kobe's youthful instinct to take matters into his own hands with little to no regard for teammates or ball movement. Young Jordan was as single-minded a scorer as the NBA has ever seen. In earlier episodes of the documentary, Jordan was clear that he initially didn't want Phil Jackson to take over as Chicago's coach in 1989 because was going to "take the ball out of my hands."
In his third season, Jordan took 28 shots per game. He called any offense that put the ball in Bill Cartwright's hands in the final five seconds of the shot clock -- or any player's hands besides Jordan really -- "bulls---."
There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. Jordan is the greatest scorer in history, and in those days, playing one-on-one was an easier thing to do before the illegal-defense rules changed. It's just funny to hear Jordan poke at Kobe's individualistic approach to the game. It would be like Steph Curry mocking a young player for wanting to shoot deep 3-pointers all the time.
None of this, mind you, feels particularly critical coming out of Jordan's mouth. You have to imagine he saw a lot of himself in young Kobe, and indeed their relationship grew with time. Kobe called Jordan his "big brother" and during the doc recounted that 1998 All-Star Game in which Jordan told Bryant to call him whenever he needed any kind of advice. Kobe says he hates when people talk about who would win a one-on-one game between him and Jordan, because in his eyes, without Jordan, he never would've become the player or person he did.
All of that was floating in the air at the 1998 All-Star Game. You can sense it, even after all these years, even through a television screen. The torch was being passed, and just like Jordan did when he got into the league, Kobe was ready to grab that thing and go straight to the basket with it.