When Kobe Bryant made his first public comments after signing a two-year extension in November 2013, the Los Angeles Lakers were in Washington and the future Hall of Famer held a news conference at Verizon Center while a Washington Wizards banner hung behind him and a microphone with the Wizards’ “dc” logo rested in front of him. The image gave Wizards fans a chance to indulge a fantasy in which Bryant collected championship rings a few blocks from the White House instead of Los Angeles.
Very few know that this seemingly laughable fantasy was nearly reality: More than a decade ago, Bryant wanted to get away from Los Angeles, and the team he wanted to join was the Wizards, where he would join forces with his mentor Michael Jordan.
Those plans evaporated when then-Wizards owner Abe Pollin parted ways with Jordan in 2003, a year before Bryant became a free agent, but as Wizards fans pine over the idea of Kevin Durant coming to Washington as a free agent, the near-miss that was Kobe-to-DC finally can be shared.
“That’s true,” Bryant confirmed recently. “A long time ago? Yeah.”
The Wizards won’t have to worry about facing Bryant on Tuesday at Staples Center. Bryant’s season — and possibly, career — is over after the 19-year-veteran tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder last week during a loss to New Orleans. Before he was forced to contemplate another protracted recovery or even his basketball future, Bryant passed Jordan for third on the NBA’s career scoring list. That historic achievement continued to find Bryant cast under the immense shadow of the player considered the best to ever play the game.
But during the height of his feud with then-teammate Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s, Bryant wanted to be under Jordan in a different capacity. Bryant revealed recently he felt pushed to ponder a future away from the purple and gold banners after O’Neal — a three-time Finals MVP from 2000 to 2002 — went too far.
“The challenge had been thrown down upon me, of not being able to win without Shaq. A public challenge never really bothered me too much, but he made a couple of comments as well. I think he called me Penny Hardaway Part 2 or something like that. So that’s what [ticked] me off,” Bryant said. “Then it was like, ‘Listen, you know the step back that I took to help us win championships. Let’s not get [expletive] confused. I can dominate on my own. I decided to stay here and win championships and sacrifice MVPs and scoring titles and all that stuff.’ So once that was said, it was like a line in the sand now.”
Jordan was long an inspiration and eventually a mentor for Bryant, who quickly reached a stature in the league’s hierarchy few had achieved. Bryant could always lean on the counsel of Jerry West within the Lakers organization and he connected with Jordan, especially after the Lakers hired Phil Jackson, who won six titles with Jordan in Chicago.
“It’s been ongoing. He’s always been there since we played in ’98 [at the All-Star Game in New York],” Bryant said of Jordan. Earlier this season, Bryant explained to reporters in Los Angeles why he sought out Jordan for advice and wisdom on basketball and life: “When I first came into the league, Michael was terrifying to everybody. Everybody was really afraid of the guy. Like really, deathly afraid of him. I never really understood that and I was the one that was willing to challenge and learn from him and wasn’t afraid to call him and ask him questions. He was really open and spoke to me a lot and helped me a lot.”
Nearly two years after he retired for a second time in Chicago, Jordan teamed with Wizards then-minority owner Ted Leonsis and assumed the role of president of basketball operations for 11/2 seasons. According to two people with knowledge of the situation, after Jordan decided to sell his minority ownership stake to resume his playing career with the Wizards, Bryant informed him several times he wanted to play for the Wizards — under the assumption that Jordan would return to the front office once his playing days were over.
Jordan declined a request to be interviewed. Pollin died in 2009.
The Wizards don’t have the storied tradition of the Lakers, who have won 10 of their 16 championships since Washington claimed its only title, as the Bullets, in 1978. But Bryant felt they offered what was important at the time: an opportunity to establish his own legacy and turn a moribund franchise into a champion. More importantly, Washington presented regular access to Jordan.
“I’ve always been very big on having mentors, on having muses and I’ve been really, really big on that,” Bryant said. “Being around guys who have done it before and done it at a high level and always tried to pick their brains and always tried to absorb knowledge. Obviously, being in that situation [with the Wizards], it would’ve helped having to be around him every day and so on.”
Jordan’s tenure as an executive in Washington had its successes (trading Juwan Howard to clear cap room and signing Larry Hughes) and notable failures (drafting Kwame Brown and trading Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse) but luring Bryant from Los Angeles would have been a reputation-altering coup.
“What I look at, in terms of the front office, is their commitment to excellence, their commitment to not winning division banners but winning NBA championships,” Bryant said of Jordan. “That’s where I always start and then I can work backwards. He obviously was a championship-or-bust man.”
The Wizards never had the assets to discuss a trade for Bryant, so the only chance the organization would have had to make a run at him was when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2004. Jordan, however, wasn’t allowed to recruit Bryant because Pollin decided in May 2003 not to let him continue running the team. While Jordan’s ability to land Bryant was no guarantee, a person close to him said Jordan was “confident” he would have made it happen.
With the Wizards taking a different course under Ernie Grunfeld and eliminated as a possibility, Bryant resisted overtures from Chicago, New York, Denver and the Clippers and elected to remain a Laker. Bryant signed a seven-year, $136 million contract the day after the Lakers dealt O’Neal to Miami, ensuring there would be no extreme Alpha-male contest for control of the team. Had he joined Jordan in Washington, Bryant is certain only one result would’ve unfolded.
“We would’ve put together a great team and we would’ve won championships,” Bryant said. “Listen, man. There are not a lot of players in this league that say, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to get this [expletive] done.’ People can look around and joke around about winning, saying they want to win. For me, it’s a matter of life or death. It was that important to me. And if it’s that important to me, I’m going to get there.”
Bryant has been uncomfortable at times with comparisons to Jordan, believing the standard was unfair and unattainable. But their careers have long been linked because so much of Bryant’s style and so many of his mannerisms mirrored Jordan. Jordan joked more than a year ago he would have had the most difficult time going one-on-one in his prime against Bryant “because he steals all my moves.”
Teaming with Jordan wouldn’t have been a problem for him, Bryant said. “We all have different phases of our lives. He moved on to the phase of ownership and trying to be great at that. And from my standpoint, it was very easy to separate the two. He wants to win championships as an owner. I want to win championships as a player.”
A move to Washington would have also put Bryant closer to where he had grown up in suburban Philadelphia. Bryant added that being on the East Coast was part of his motivation. “A little bit. But I was really upset the Sixers didn’t take me No. 1 in ’96. Because I’m in their back yard. I was a little [bitter] about that. Still am a little bit. I’m a competitor, right? They viewed Allen [Iverson] as being a better player than me, so that was something that always fueled me.”
Bryant said he contemplated leaving the Lakers just twice in his career: during his feud with O’Neal in the early 2000s and then in 2007, when he demanded to be traded out of frustration with the direction of the franchise.
“I just felt like they were sitting on their hands and not spending the money and having me rake in the money,” Bryant said. “That I’m not cool with. I’m out there busting my [expletive], it’s important to us as an organization to do the same thing. To their credit, they stepped up. They got Pau [Gasol] and we went from there.”
The Lakers won two more titles after acquiring Gasol. After claiming his fifth ring with a seven-game series win over Boston in 2010, Bryant used it as an opportunity to rub it in to his former teammate and rival O’Neal.
“Just got one more than Shaq,” Bryant said after the game. “You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”
With a chance to reflect on his time with the Lakers, Bryant expressed his gratitude that he has been able to represent one organization for his entire career.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “This doesn’t happen often. You might not see it happen for a very long time. A player playing this long, 19, 20 years.”
And if he decides to return for one last season with the Lakers, Bryant still hopes that he can get one more ring, to possibly give him the same total as Jordan.
“I try to win every single year. Every time I try to step on a basketball court is to win a championship,” Bryant said. “And this organization, to their credit, has done nothing but to try to push for that. We have a track record of figuring things out, and I’m confident we will.”