For two similarly-styled combatants, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant could really never get on track when it came to an on-court rivalry.
Bryant, who is set to likely overtake Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on either Friday or Sunday evening, missed out on Jordan’s prime years while working his way to that high school diploma. When Jordan retired for the second time in early 1999, Bryant wasn’t even a starter yet on his Los Angeles Lakers. When Jordan returned to the NBA nearly three years later, Bryant was in his absolute prime, while Jordan was working through various injuries from ages 38-40 before retiring again.
While we never really got a chance to see them go at it at their absolute best, this doesn’t mean when their respective teams met that we didn’t get some good shows. Let’s look back at all eight of them.
Bryant’s first trip to Chicago as a pro saw the 18-year-old seeing precious little time off the bench. With Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Shaquille O’Neal manning the scoring duties, Bryant played just 10 minutes in the eventual Lakers loss. He took five shots and scored five points, hardly registering in the contest’s final outcome. Jordan, meanwhile, struggled against Jones – MJ missed 22 of 32 shots on his way toward 30 points.
That doesn’t mean this wasn’t a fantastic contest.
In Shaq’s first game against the Bulls following Chicago’s four-game dismissal of O’Neal’s Orlando Magic team the previous postseason, he helped give the Lakers an 18-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Bulls finally got their act together around Toni Kukoc, who scored 31 points in the contest – many of them on O’Neal. The Bulls roared back to force overtime, and when the final frame set in, so did Randy Brown:
Though Bryant won the Dunk Contest and nearly won the Rookie Game MVP at that year’s All-Star Weekend, he was still very much a prodigy in waiting behind an All-Star in Eddie Jones. When Chicago traveled to Los Angeles for Bryant and Jordan’s second meeting during Kobe’s rookie year, Bryant again barely played – working just 13 minutes in garbage time, missing five of seven shots and finishing with five points.
Chicago’s defense was mostly garbage on that day, struggling to defend Elden Campbell in the pick and roll as the big man finished with 34 points. Jordan worked 40 minutes despite the one-sided loss, scoring 27 points on 24 shots.
Bryant was becoming a phenomenon in his second pro season, still coming off the bench but creating all manner of trade rumors (some even involving Scottie Pippen) surrounding Eddie Jones, as the eventual pairing of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal became more and more obvious. Chicago was still the champ, however, and it would eventually wait out the Shaq-less Lakers and take the win.
Not before Jordan and Bryant gave us perhaps their best back and forth. Do watch:
It’s true that quite a few of Jordan’s 36 points came on Eddie Jones, and that most of Bryant’s 33 points came after Jordan set to the bench in Chicago’s blowout win, but the two took some cracks at each other. Even from an early age, Bryant’s footwork was obvious. He discussed as much recently with CBS Sports’ Ken Berger:
"I think a lot of people saw the highlights of him, the dunks or the fancy layups. But as a kid, I saw more than that. I saw how he got there," Bryant told CBSSports.com. "I saw footwork. I saw spacing. I saw how to use screens. That's what I saw. That's what's different from a lot of kids who came up during my era. They saw the highlights, but I saw how he got to those highlights."
Bryant even had the chutzpah to ask Jordan a question about low post footwork during a break in action at midcourt, as the Lakers lined up for free throws, and Jordan didn’t hold back in his tutorial. With the Bulls safely ahead late in the contest, Jordan sat on the bench to ice his knees alongside an injured Scottie Pippen. With Bryant dunking away during his showcase time, Jordan leaned over to Pippen to pick his brain. “Could we jump like that,” Jordan asked his teammate, “when we were that young?”
The Last One, We Thought
When Chicago visited Los Angeles later in 1997-98 it was more or less assumed that this was Jordan’s last NBA season, and with his obvious heir apparent in Bryant lining up again for the Lakers, most (and especially NBC) hoped it would get a thriller and eventual torch passing to showcase to viewers.
It wasn’t to be. In a reversal from the teams’ meeting earlier in the season, a weary Bulls team was demolished by the Lakers in another one-sided affair. Both Jordan (31 points on 26 shots) and Bryant (20 points on 16 shots) got their licks in, but this was another case of two ships passing in the night.
Oddly, NBA schedule makers waited all the way until February to pit the un-retired Jordan against Bryant during the 2001-02 season. Kobe had won two championships by this point utilizing a very Jordan-esque style of play, and this no doubt unnerved a player in MJ that felt that he wasn’t able to go out on his own terms following his sixth title in 1998.
(Even though he really, really should have accepted those terms.)
By this point in the season, the Washington Wizards-era Jordan had pretty much established himself. He remained a savvy player as he neared his 39th birthday, but a low-efficiency one that mainly relied on line-drive jumpers to typically score about what he scored in this Wizards loss – 22 points on 20 shots.
Bryant put together an absolutely marvelous game. His 23 points on 20 shots was rather Wizards-era Jordan-esque, but he also grabbed 11 rebounds and dished 15 assists.
The Sad One
By the time Los Angeles made it out to Washington toward the end of 2001-02, Jordan’s comeback had more or less proved a failure. Jordan was working through knee injuries, and his sub-.500 Wizards were squarely out of the playoff race even in a terrible Eastern Conference. Bryant, meanwhile, was gearing up for his final championship season with Shaquille O’Neal, and hardly needed to press himself in the easy Lakers win.
An ailing Jordan came off the bench to miss four of five shots in 12 minutes, while Bryant paced himself on his way to 14 points and six assists.
The Actual Good Game
The November 2002 contest between the Wizards and Lakers was the only real competitive contest of the lot, and in a lot of ways the strangest.
To start, Jordan didn’t start. Nursing knee injuries, he came off the bench for Washington but still managed to compile 25 points on efficient (especially for him, at age 39) 9-14 shooting in 30 minutes. Kobe did not fare as well from the field, missing 13 of 21 shots, but he did make all 11 of his free throws on his way to 27 points.
In the waning seconds of the close game, however, Kobe and MJ declined to try to out-shoot each other on the way to the win. Instead, they acted as decoys as Robert Horry and then Jerry Stackhouse nailed the game’s final shots. Watch:
It truly isn’t fair what Kobe Bryant did to Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards in the last meeting (we think) between Jordan and Bryant as players, but that’s what MJ signed up for. If you want to come back after three seasons off to play as a 40-year-old swingman, some 24-year-old superstar is going to take it to you.
Kobe, scoring 55 points on only 29 shots, truly took it to him:
OK, Kobe Bryant didn’t really take him to Jordan directly – Jerry Stackhouse and Tyronn Lue spent most of the game guarding him – but that’s sort of the point. In-prime Michael Jordan (who scored 23 points on 20 shots) would have demanded the defensive assignment against the Kobester, but sadly we never got to see Jordan and Bryant working in their primes at the same time.
There truly never were any fair pitched battles between the two, because asking an 18-year-old or a 40-year-old to compete at top level is the height of insanity. With that in place, we still have YouTube …
… and we’ll always have memories of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Two raving lunatic competitors that could really score the basketball.
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