Kobe Bryant had two dalliances with the Bulls.
In July 2004, a Lakers’ three-peat ran its course with back-to-back playoff exits, including a 2004 Finals loss. Phil Jackson left as coach. The Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal relationship no longer functioned on or off the court.
One year after succeeding Jerry Krause as the Bulls’ top basketball executive, John Paxson flew to Newport Beach, Calif., with Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to pitch Bryant in free agency. Bryant liked what he heard.
In the pre-social media age, Bryant liked even more that the Bulls kept their pursuit quiet. A full week passed before any media outlet reported the meeting.
“We were looking at houses, we were looking at schools,” Bryant told the Chicago Tribune in December 2004. “We already were talking about a sign-and-trade.”
Even if O’Neal hadn’t requested a trade that landed him with the Heat, there’s no guarantee the Bulls would’ve acquired Bryant. The Clippers pursued him as well.
As it was, Bryant re-signed with the Lakers and eventually won two more championships. But those came after Bryant made noise about wanting a trade during the 2007 offseason and again expressed interest in the Bulls’ nucleus.
Reports of the Bulls refusing to part with Luol Deng were greatly exaggerated. For starters, Bryant wanted to end up with the Bulls only if Deng played for them. Furthermore, the Lakers engaged in non-serious trade talks mainly to appease Bryant, who eventually calmed.
Both those scenarios came to mind with Sunday’s heartbreaking news that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter accident near Los Angeles. One of his four daughters was killed as well.
“The Chicago Bulls organization is terribly saddened about the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the other passengers in today’s horrific helicopter crash in California,” Paxson said in a statement. “While he leaves us far too soon, his legacy and persona will forever be remembered. One of the best to have ever played the game of basketball, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Bryant family and the other families affected.”
The Bulls never acquired Bryant, but the mutual respect between them always stood out. Beyond Bryant’s appreciation for Paxson and Reinsdorf’s 2004 pitch, this was guaranteed because the Bulls once employed Michael Jordan.
Bryant never hid his desire to 'Be Like Mike.' He walked like him, talked like him, won one fewer championship than him and relished having his cutthroat competitiveness compared to his idol’s.
That’s why, on his final visit to the United Center, Bryant spoke so eloquently about the influence Jordan had on him. And why, if he had ever become a Bull, the honor would have been his.
“No words can really do it justice,” Bryant said on Feb. 21, 2016. “As a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video. And so I studied everything. I studied every player. And then once I came back to the States and I realized I wasn’t going to be 6-9, I started studying Michael exclusively. And then when I came into the league and matched up against him, I found that he was extremely open to having a relationship, a mentoring relationship. He gave me a great amount of advice in an amazing amount of detail — strategies, workout regimens, things like that.
“Seriously, I don’t think people really understand the amount of impact he has had on me as a player and as a leader. So if I was fortunate to come here, if that trade had happened, it’s not a pressure situation to live up to what he has done. It’s more can I carry on the man’s legacy? Can I do it justice? Can I represent Chicago the way it should be represented in his honor?”
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