December 17, 1996, was marked on 18-year-old Kobe Bryant’s calendar. After all, that evening, he was slated to play his idol, Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan, at United Center. He knew of Jordan’s stature in the game, but he didn’t care about any of it. Kobe knew every MJ move and the proper counters to them. But once he met with the Black Cat up close and personal, Kobe realized things were a little different.
Black Mamba vs. Black Cat
In the “Holding Court with Geno Auriemma” podcast, Bryant recalled his first meeting with Jordan and the Bulls. Kobe knew Jordan’s moves — how and when he would unveil them. But there’s a lot of difference between what you see on the screen and when you face the man himself.
“I was thinking in my mind, I didn’t care. 'I’m going to destroy this guy. I don’t care if I’m 18, I’m coming for blood.' And the first thing he did, they ran a fifth-down sequence in the triangle. He caught the ball in the corner and he made his little pirouette spin that he does and sneaks baseline. I fell for it, and he went by me and dunked it. I remember just laughing to myself all the way up the court. I’ve seen that move thousands of times and I can’t believe I just fell for it,” Bryant said.
But Kobe was cut from the same cloth as Mike. After getting fooled by Jordan in their very first match-up, Kobe wasn’t discouraged. Whenever he faced Jordan, he took it as a learning experience.
“And then after that, it was like, ‘OK, let’s get to work.’ Every time I faced him I wanted to see how he was going to respond to his same moves. The best way I could figure out how to defend him was to see how he would defend himself if I hold a mirror up,” Kobe said.
The details of Jordan and Bryant’s first meeting haven’t been discussed much. After all, Kobe scored just 5 points in 10 minutes of play. Meanwhile, Jordan had his usual stats of 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists. Jordan had 27 points in their second game, while Kobe still had 5 points in 13 minutes of play.
What’s being brought up time and time again is their third meeting, where Kobe had 33 points against Jordan’s 36. Kobe’s development from their first two meetings to their third is critical. We must remember that while Kobe was the Lakers’ prized rookie, he didn’t get ample playing time under coach Del Harris.
This frustrated Kobe. But at the same time, he turned it as fuel to his fire. He knew he needed to prove himself if he wanted some playing time. Safe to say that in just a short amount of time, he went from a bench warmer to a bona fide star. From someone who fell to Jordan’s signature move, Kobe earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence as his hero.