This moment — Kobe Bryant’s memorial Monday — was different, unprecedented even. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, and a sports hero isn’t supposed to bury his most devoted and accomplished acolyte, who died tragically in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash. Jordan graciously helped Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, off the stage by offering his hand, but that was the easy part. Now it was Jordan’s turn to eulogize Bryant, who as a teenager had studied his every move and who as an adult had won five championships and moved past him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
This was a challenge, frankly, that even many of Jordan’s die-hard fans assumed he would duck. After all, Jordan has spent years as an icon in hiding. He was practically invisible at the past two All-Star Weekends, even though one was in Charlotte, where he owns the Hornets, and the other was in Chicago, where he lorded over the NBA for more than a decade. Jordan has six rings, two Olympic gold medals, a basketball team, nearly $2 billion, a sneaker company that prints money and an immaculately sculpted public persona. Of what value were photo ops and standing ovations?
While Jordan dominated pop culture throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he has spent the past 15 years rejecting it. LeBron James constantly shares Instagram clips from his private workouts and family dinners, but the 57-year-old Jordan doesn’t even bother operating social media accounts. He lives on in YouTube clips, Twitter debates and countless memes, but Jordan has done his best to shrink the shadow he has cast over Bryant, James and the other superstars who have come along since his 2003 retirement.
When Jordan took that massive stage at Staples Center on Monday, his first shot barely grazed the iron.
“I would say good morning, but it’s afternoon,” Jordan said, offering the type of nonsensical opener familiar to anyone who has had to give a best man’s speech or a company Christmas party toast.
It didn’t take long for Jordan to shake off the rust, to settle back into the spotlight where he thrived for so many years. His task wasn’t easy. Jordan had to humanize Bryant, but he also had to validate him. Oceans of ink have been spilled debating the relative merits of these two champions, both natural scorers, workaholics and fierce trash talkers. This was the chance for Jordan to weigh in, at length, on the man he had so often been pitted against.
“Kobe was my dear friend,” Jordan said. “Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe.”
Swish. Jordan relaxed, even as tears streamed down his face. He recounted how his first impression of Bryant was as a “nuisance” — thanks to his incessant questions about Jordan’s technique and approach. Jordan compared Bryant to a younger sibling who might rifle through your closet and clothes, so eager to walk, talk and act like his big brother. He described 3 a.m. phone calls and text messages with a slight exasperation to his voice.
But then Jordan provided the sentiment that every kid who grew up with a hero and every professional who looked up to a mentor secretly dreams about. He made it clear, with the whole world watching, that their relationship was a two-way street. Bryant might have sought all that guidance from Jordan, but he had left a mark of his own, too.
“That nuisance turned into love,” Jordan explained. “At first it was an aggravation. But then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know. He wanted to be the best basketball player he could be. As I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother I could be. To do that, you have to put up with the aggravation, the late-night calls, the dumb questions. I took great pride as I got to know Kobe Bryant.”
Much like his coveted sneakers, which are sometimes so hard to find that consumers line up for hours and pay hundreds of dollars over retail, Jordan’s compliments are scarce. He never cedes an inch to Bryant or James in the “Greatest Of All Time” debates, preferring instead to avoid the discussion and deploy monotone platitudes. When Bryant passed him for the third spot on the NBA’s scoring list in 2014, Jordan’s brief and bland statement referred to Bryant as “a great player with a strong work ethic and an equally strong passion for the game of basketball.”
Yet here was Jordan, eyes red, poking fun at his own vulnerability.
“He’s got me [crying],” Jordan told the crowd of thousands. “I’ve got to look at another ['Crying Jordan'] meme. I told my wife I wasn’t going to do this because I don’t want to see this for the next three to four years.”
Staples Center erupted in laughter, and rightfully so. Jordan, usually so regal and rigid, had let his guard down and made himself the butt of his own joke. This vicious competitor, who had held an endless grudge against the high school coach who cut him and had once punched a Bulls teammate, was admitting that Bryant’s death had rocked him as it had rocked everyone else.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said. “When I look in this arena, or across the globe, a piece of you died.”
Jordan was hardly the only person to fall under Bryant’s spell. Vanessa Bryant spoke movingly of their marriage and of her heartbreak. In the days after Bryant’s death, Jerry West regaled a national television audience with tales of Bryant’s precociousness as a teenager. And Shaquille O’Neal pointedly buried the hatchet with Bryant, telling fans last month that their tense ending as Lakers teammates was not representative of their friendship and mutual respect.
But it was always Jordan whom Bryant wanted to mimic and impress. It was Jordan whom Bryant desperately wanted to beat, even in meaningless All-Star Games. It was Jordan whom Bryant was obsessed with unseating on the scoring list, in the rings department and in the GOAT debate.
Here, for the first time, Jordan cried uncle: Decades of Bryant’s relentlessness had finally gotten to him.
“That’s what Kobe Bryant does to me,” Jordan admitted. “He knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally, even if he’s being a pain in the ass.”
Basketball’s most ruthless and single-minded competitor had finally met his match.