“In loving memory of Kobe Bryant.”
Episodes 5 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” began with those words, fresh and still surreal, emblazoned across the screen. What ensued was uniquely nostalgic and, of course, gut-wrenching.
Before getting to the feel-good moments of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan's relationship, “The Last Dance” first cut to a clip from the 1998 All-Star game at Madison Square Garden, a game that both Jordan and Bryant famously competed against each other in.
At the time, Bryant, 19, was the youngest player to ever participate in an All-Star game. But there were no behind-the-scenes moments of encouragement from Jordan to Bryant, nor rare peeks into the familial bond that would one day form between the two — at least to start.
Instead, we got some patented locker room trash talk.
“That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one. He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take,” Jordan said pregame, to an onlooking crowd of Eastern Conference All-Stars. “I’m going to make this s**t happen. I’m going to make this a one-on-one game. I figured after the first four attempts didn’t go in, he was gonna chill. After the first four attempts? If I was his teammate, I wouldn’t pass him the f**king ball! You want this ball again, brother, you better rebound.”
The irony, of course, is that all of those perceived flaws were born out of Bryant’s desire to be like Jordan. Clips from the game of Jordan and Bryant matching up then flashed across the screen. A fastbreak dunk for Bryant here. A contested, turnaround jumper for Jordan there. The result was a prescient snapshot of Jordan's influence on Bryant.
In a harrowing present-day interview, given the context that he died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers in January, Bryant shared his perspective on the All-Star matchup.
“I grew up watching Michael on TV. And now you got a chance to go face to face with him,” Bryant said. “You get a chance to really see and touch and feel, strength, the speed, the quickness. It was fun to be out there.”
Bryant then detailed the evolution of their relationship and Jordan’s impact on his game, to misty-eyed effect.
“Michael provided a lot of guidance for me. I had a question about shooting his turnaround shot. So I asked him about it. He gave me this great detailed answer,” Bryant said, adding that at the time he entered the league, a trend-breaker coming straight out of high school, he was without many outlets of support. “But on top of that, he said if you ever need anything, give me a call. That’s my big brother. I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one. You’re a fan saying, ‘Hey, Kobe, you’d beat Michael one-on-one.’ I feel like, ‘Yo, what you get from me is from him.’
“I don’t get five championships here without him. He guided me so much and gave me so much great advice.”
Bryant terming Jordan a “big brother” to him hits especially hard given that Jordan said he “lost a little brother” in Bryant at an emotional memorial service for the Lakers legend at the Staples Center in February.
But then, back to the game. And as they parted ways, at the end of the game, Jordan said to Bryant: "I'll see you down the road."