Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan last faced off in an NBA game on March 28, 2003.
Jordan was 40 years old, churning out the final days of his playing career for a middling Washington Wizards team. Bryant was 24, already a seven-year pro and three-time NBA champ, enjoying the best season of his young career for the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers.
As such, that late regular-season game at Staples Center was a bit lopsided; Bryant’s Lakers won 108-94 behind a double-nickel from Bryant — 55 points on 15-for-29 field-goal shooting (9-for-13 from 3). Jordan poured in 23 points of his own on 10-for-20 from the field in a losing effort.
That game also produced one of the enduring images of Bryant and Jordan’s friendship.
It started rather innocuously. With just over 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and the Lakers ahead 20 points, Bryant strolled up the floor with Jerry Stackhouse lined up across from him. Rick Fox, Jordan’s man, stepped up and set a screen for Bryant. But Jordan sniffed out the intent. As Bryant slammed on the accelerator and attempted to dart around Fox’s screen toward open space on the right wing, Jordan popped out from behind Fox and stymied the drive. Stackhouse clawed over the initial screen. Once regrouped, the two backed Bryant off the 3-point line.
The counterpunch: Bryant dumped the ball off to Fox, then hit the gas again in anticipation of a handoff pass. He collected the ball. He put one dribble down. But there Jordan was again — expectant, feet set and ready to absorb the contact of Bryant’s single-minded drive before he could turn the corner.
Bodies tangled, Jordan hit the floor and a whistle blew. Offensive foul on Bryant. For a moment, the Laker guard stared down his one-time idol, a look of utter contempt plastered across his face. But that quickly melted. The two shared a knowing laugh, Bryant playfully punched Jordan three times in the chest and helped him to his feet. The game went on.
You might recognize another familiar face in that photo, just to Bryant’s left. John Cusack, joining in the merriment, along with seemingly every observer in the vicinity of the play.
In a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Cusack shared what was said between Jordan and Bryant that turned annoyance to ebullience.
“At some point in the game, everyone knew Michael and Kobe were going to go 1-on-1,” Cusack said. “So, Kobe got the ball, he cleared everybody out and everybody started to bristle up with anticipation and it was going to be Kobe against Michael. And Kobe started to drive, Michael stepped in front of him — right in front of me — and he took the charge.”
“He (Jordan) went down, and Kobe’s standing above him. And Michael just looked up and said, ‘Well everybody in the f*****g building knew you weren’t going to pass.’” Cusack said. “And then there’s a pause… And Kobe just started laughing and they both started laughing.”
(Story begins at the 04:58 mark)
Indeed, Jordan’s gamble was an informed one. Bryant had scored 50 of his 55 points at the time of this play. In fact, Jordan had already drawn a charge on him on a similar play the previous quarter. Never count out the wily vet.
“You really felt the passing of the torch, one great to the other,” Cusack added. “You felt it was a moment in sports, it was amazing to be at.”
It’s amazing to relive too. Hat tip to Adam Howes, who put this edit of the story interspersed with game footage together on Twitter: