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'The Last Dance:' Kobe Bryant's former coaches on relationship with Michael Jordan

Mark Medina, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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Well before the on-court trash talking, the private conversations and a moving public eulogy, Kobe Bryant outlined a bold prediction involving himself and Michael Jordan.

As a senior at Lower Merion High School, Bryant remained humble enough to know how challenging it would be to defend Jordan. Bryant remained confident enough, however, to predict he could score on Jordan and not feel overwhelmed by the matchup.

"If I was a 17-year-old kid, I would be petrified of having to guard Michael Jordan. But Kobe relished those opportunities," Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer told USA TODAY Sports. "He was not afraid."

That was one of many reasons why Bryant made the move to the NBA out of high school in 1996. Bryant wanted to compete against the NBA stars of the previous generation, including Jordan. After the Los Angeles Lakers secured his draft rights at No. 13 from the Charlotte Hornets, Bryant spoke to teammate Byron Scott about his career aspirations. Then, Bryant shared his hopes about becoming the NBA’s best player, though he never outwardly said he wanted to be like Mike.

"Kobe never talked about him at all," Scott told USA TODAY Sports. "He was just so focused his rookie year with just trying to get on the court as much as possible."

Therefore, Scott and Downer were pleasantly surprised to learn how close a bond Bryant and Jordan forged.

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Less than a month after Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash, Scott and Downer attended Bryant’s memorial at Staples Center where Jordan delivered a eulogy that Downer called "iconic." While fighting back tears, Jordan affectionately described Bryant as his "little brother." Jordan recalled the countless times Bryant peppered him with basketball questions during ungodly hours.

"I had no idea that they were that close. I was pretty close to Kobe, and I had no idea until the memorial listening to MJ talk," Scott said. "That was something that he and MJ kept to themselves. They probably didn't feel like it was anybody else’s damn business."

It soon became public consumption. On Sunday, ESPN aired the fifth episode of "The Last Dance" documentary on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls with the beginning dedicated to Bryant.

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The episode started with the 1998 NBA All-Star game, where Jordan talked trash about Bryant in various settings. In the locker room, Jordan described Bryant as "that little Laker boy" before critiquing his high-volume shooting and proclaiming he would have never passed him the ball if they were teammates. In a timeout huddle, Jordan said, "I'm gonna make his ass work." On the court, Jordan boasted that Bryant could not defend his turnaround jumper.

Jordan won his third All-Star MVP with 23 points, but Bryant held his own with 18 points, six rebounds and two steals despite missing the entire fourth quarter. Afterwards, Jordan respectfully told Bryant he would "see you down the road."

"You see the friction with Isiah Thomas. You see the friction with Jerry Krause and you see the friction with a lot of people," Downer said. "Yet, there was something about Kobe that Jordan really grew to respect."

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After Jordan won six NBA championships with 32,292 points in 15 NBA seasons, Bryant won five titles with 33,643 points in 20 seasons. Both attacked the rim with high-flying athleticism. Both perfected the mid-range jumper because of their superior footwork. Both intimidated opponents with their maniacal competitiveness. Both attracted varying forms of praise and criticism for their demanding and confrontational leadership style.

Jordan spent his first six seasons learning to elevate his teammates before the Bulls eventually upgraded their talent. Bryant spent his first eight years learning how to co-exist with All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal before eventually becoming the team’s first option. Jordan’s career was cut short by two retirements (1993-95, 1999-2001). Bryant’s was cut short because of three season-ending injuries (2013-15).

"People think that the Jordan-Kobe comparisons were a little slanted toward Michael. But Kobe, in his heart of hearts, certainly believed that he could compete with Michael," Downer said. "What the overall résumés look like microscopically? I don't know. Kobe was chasing that sixth ring hard and then had a couple of injuries when he got older. It's not all about six rings to five rings, but the overall body of work was pretty close."

Plenty of intrigue emerged from their eight head-to-head matchups. It started with Bryant scoring only five points his rookie season and ended with him scoring 55 during Jordan’s final season in Washington. It continued with Bryant surpassing Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on Dec. 14, 2015 in Minnesota. After Bryant hit a pair of free throws with 5:25 left in the second quarter, the game stopped before Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor presented Bryant with the game ball. After waving to the crowd, Bryant hugged his head coach (Scott), teammates and trainers before play resumed.

"It was like it was no big deal. It almost seemed like to me that's what he expected," said Scott, who coached Bryant during his final two seasons. "Probably on his to-do list was to pass MJ, to do this and do that. I don’t know if the 60-point last game was on there. But definitely passing MJ in scoring was something that was on his mind. That’s somebody he truly looked up to."

Bryant and Jordan dismissed the endless comparisons.

Consider what Jordan said about Bryant during his eulogy.

"Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe," Jordan said. "He wanted to be the best basketball player that he could be. And as I got to know him. I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be."

Consider what Bryant said about Jordan in "The Last Dance."

"I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one, and your fans saying, 'Hey Kobe, you’d beat Michael one-on-one,' " Bryant said. "I feel like, 'Yo, what you get from me is from him.' I don't get five championships here without him because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice."

Scott watched that footage like a proud parent. After dealing with grief for the past three months, Scott experienced a cathartic moment.

"I was literally sitting there with a big smile on my face," Scott said. "It was just like when I was seeing MJ talk about Kobe at the memorial. I wasn't smiling at that time. I had tears in my eyes. But to listen to it last night? We see how their relationship was, their competitive nature and how much Kobe really emulated and took from MJ and wanted to be so much like him in so many ways. Kobe was that clone, and MJ saw it early"

Downer watched that footage like a grieving parent. Ever since Bryant helped the Aces win a state championship in 1996, Downer has kept various photos of himself and Bryant displayed in his house. Since Bryant’s passing on Jan. 26, they have brought more pain than joy. So Downer recently put the photos out of sight. When he sat down to watch the Bulls documentary on Sunday, though, Downer could not avoid seeing and hearing Bryant.

"I still can't believe he's gone. When you have to watch something like that, it just mixes up the emotions. With something like his tragedy, you have good days and you have bad days," Downer said. "I didn't find it to be helpful, if that makes sense, with watching the episode. It's so raw. The emotions come bubbling back up to the surface."

So did the memories. The ones involving a young Bryant striving for greatness. The ones involving Bryant and Jordan in their first All-Star Game together. The ones involving Jordan toasting Bryant during his memorial.

Said Downer: "It was amazingly powerful."

Said Scott: "To see how their relationship materialized was unbelievable."

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Last Dance': Kobe Bryant's coaches on Michael Jordan relationship