Today marked Kobe’s retirement ceremony’s anniversary when the Los Angeles Lakers hung the numbers 8 and 24 in the rafters, among other legends that played for the most famous NBA franchise. It also marks the anniversary of one of the first real duels between Michael Jordan and the late great Kobe Bryant, who made his name known in the NBA while still being a teenager.
After a couple of previous games against MJ, Kobe realized he would have to improve fast to compete with top players in the league and potentially surpass them as the NBA’s best player.
On December 17th, 1997, a 19-year-old Bryant continued his streak of great performances. He scored 27 against the Rockets, 30 against the Mavericks, and Chicago Bulls were up next. Both teams were missing key players since Shaquille O’Neal, and Scottie Pippen didn’t play that night. Everything was set for a game that personified the present and, in some way, the NBA’s future.
Both MJ and Kobe didn’t disappoint the crowd at the United Center with their historic performances. MJ scored a game-high 36 points with incredible efficiency, while young Kobe led the Lakers with 33 points, but the Bulls won that game 104-83.
What is also memorable about this game is Kobe’s approach towards MJ when he asked him a piece of advice about footwork. Bryant wanted to know how to find more space to take a shot, on which Jordan told him he needed to feel the defense with his legs to gain an advantage on offense.MJ was more than willing to pass on the knowledge while recognizing this kid's potential to make it in the league.
"He certainly has a lot of skill and has a lot of confidence, and I think it's just a matter of time for him. When you realize how great he is in his second year in college, he learned a lot, he is in the top league, and he will continue to improve."
Michael Jordan, via House of Highlights
Jordan wanted to share what he learned about the game, and Kobe was willing to learn. He also saw something in Kobe that made him stand out from the rest of the young and talented players in the league considered the 'next Michael Jordan'.
That enhances his basketball skill, and someone did that for me. I'm not against giving him any kind of hints about his game if he asks, but obviously, I won't give him too much information. The kid has learned a lot in the short amount of time he's been in the league, and I believe he is going to continue to learn.
Michael Jordan, via House of Highlights
Bryant said the advice MJ gave him helped him elevate his game a bit more. Kobe was a true geek when it comes to basketball, so any minute alone with MJ served as a purpose to gain knowledge.
"I learned a lot about his game, a lot about how technically sound Michael was. It's one thing to watch him play and then play against him. His technique was flawless. I wanted to make sure my technique was just as flawless. "Michael and I both know there are certain players we can intimidate and certain players that are afraid. Every now and then, you run into a player that has the same DNA you do and the same competitive spirit you do. You realize the bullying and trash talking is not going to work with this person."
Kobe Bryant, via Essentially Sports
MJ and Kobe played once more before Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, but this game on a cold December night was something extraordinary.
It’s interesting to look at this game from the perspective of more than two decades later. Kobe realized he would need to emulate Jordan’s games as much as possible to be one of the best in the league. That is where he picked up a lot of the same mannerism, mindset, and approach Jordan had during his playing days. However, on that night 21 years ago, a young Kobe Bryant showed his full potential while at the same time learning from one of the best to do it. The fans that night were witnessing something truly remarkable and, in some way, the passing of a torch.