LOS ANGELES—When Kobe Bryant came to the United Center to prepare for a holiday matchup against the Bulls in 2013, he figured he’d be the only player in the building working up an early sweat.
But he wasn’t alone on this January day, as Jimmy Butler was joining him in full lather, as Butler was tasked with guarding the man who was pushing his body to the limit in order to drag his star-studded but inconsistent Lakers team to the postseason.
“I was there early and he was there just as early and working on his game,” Bryant recounted.
Bryant, then still at the tail end of his prime averaging 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds, was harassed by the unknown kid into a 7-for-22 performance in the Bulls’ 95-83 win.
Butler, then a novice offensive player, scored 10 points but hit a crucial late turnaround jumper with the shot clock running down over Bryant’s extended arms. He’d already started his upward trajectory toward stardom, but it looked like Butler would be more solid contributor than franchise cornerstone.
“I think it’s just a testament of hard work,” said Bryant of Butler’s yearly improvement. “He’s developed every single year. He’d added a pull-up jump shot left, right. He pulls left shoulder, right shoulder. It’s just nothing but hard work. It pays off.”
High praise from the player Derrick Rose called “The Michael Jordan of our generation” before the Bulls’ highlight-pleasing win over Bryant’s struggling Lakers at the Staples Center Thursday, a 114-91 handling.
“He’s someone I looked up to ever since I came into the league,” Rose said. “Someone I did commercials with, someone who always gave me advice about the game. Just coming into the league, he’d seen how hard I worked.”
Butler said going against Bryant this last time—or any time—is special and the two shared moments throughout the game, not uncommon for Bryant to pass on knowledge to the younger generation as he goes on his farewell tour.
Bryant has battled injury and attrition as his career wound down. Months after the aforementioned 2013 meeting, he tore his Achilles right at the end of the regular season and has dealt with plenty more since, so he knows what Rose is dealing with.
“I think he’s fine. I think it’s a matter of him adjusting to what his body allows him to do night-in and night-out,” Bryant said. “It’s a tough adjustment to make, but he’s so big. He can use his body to bump guys off and create separation and create space on those rare nights he’s going up against a guy who he’s not quicker than.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Bryant missed the last game before the Bulls’ matchup and Rose missed most of the game against the Miami Heat Monday when his hamstring got sore in the first half.
But both had his moments under the Staples Center lights Thursday, as Rose effectively ended things with a Showtime-esque behind-the-back pass to E’Twaun Moore late in the fourth quarter.
“For all his accolades and his resume, it speaks long,” Rose said. “He leaves the game in good hands. It’s a bunch of guys that’s giving their all to the game. For Kobe, he’s gonna be a legend no matter what. He’s our Michael Jordan.”