Jordan would call Bryant his "little brother," Bryant would call Jordan his "big brother," and they'd praise each other's work ethic and accomplishments. But rarely would either volunteer much more, each man knowing all too well that any glimpse would invite the kind of comparisons and debate they loathed.
Only a few people had a sense of just how close Jordan and Bryant had become.
"If you just watched them interact in a game, Kobe always was like a magnet going toward Michael," said formerLos Angeles Lakersgeneral manager Jerry West. "Usually Michael didn't really interact with a lot of players when he was on the court. He'd just play. But for some reason, he had this affinity for him."
West was close enough to both men to know that Bryant would text and call Jordan at all hours of the night. He knew they met for lunches and dinners -- but not golf, because hell no, Bryant didn't golf -- when Jordan was in Los Angeles.
So when West and Jordan met for dinner at Craig's on Melrose on Feb. 23, the night before Bryant's public memorial, West watched Jordan carefully, making sure he was supporting his friend as he grieved.
"We talked a little bit about [Bryant]," West said. "But nothing that I think would predict what he was going to say."
Jordan had been working on his eulogy for a couple of weeks, trying to capture who Bryant was and how their relationship had evolved from a beautiful mentorship into one of Jordan's most cherished friendships.
Those who knew Jordan well knew he would cry as soon as he stepped to the podium.
"Michael is going to say the right things," West said. "He does have a soul. Most people have placed him in such a higher place in life, they don't think he has this side of him.
"But I think he was truly touched by Kobe."
The next morning, Jordan revealed to the world just how much Bryant meant to him.
"Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends," Jordan began. "But we were very close friends."
The tears were streaming down his face.
"Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I," Jordan continued. "I just wanted to talk about Kobe."
The relationship began, Jordan said, with Bryant as an annoying little brother, who "for whatever reason, always tends to get in your stuff. Your closet, your shoes, everything. It was a nuisance, if I can say that word. But that nuisance turned into love over a period of time."
Bryant wanted "to know every little detail about the life [he was] about to embark on," Jordan said. They'd talk basketball at first: post-up moves, footwork, the triangle offense. And Bryant was a sponge.
He'd soak up whatever Jordan would give him. Work on it. Master it. Then come back asking for more.
"He used to call me, text me 11:30, 2:30, 3 in the morning," Jordan said. "At first, it was an aggravation, but then it turned into a certain passion. This kid had passion like you would never know."
Jordan never stopped to dry his tears during the 10-minute speech. He made a joke about creating new fodder for another "crying Jordan" meme but didn't try to hide his emotions.
It was raw and revealing. And by the end, it was clear he had learned just as much from Bryant as Bryant had learned from him.
"To see this side of him," West said. "It was very revealing, and very touching."
For those who had only seen what little Bryant and Jordan had shown the world of their relationship, it was fascinating.
When did the best players of their generations get so close? How did two ultracompetitive alpha dogs bond so deeply? And how in the world had they kept this a secret?
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THEIR FRIENDSHIP BEGAN just like Jordan said it did: Bryant pestered him enough that Jordan finally gave in and engaged.
That dynamic was illustrated in Episode 5 of "The Last Dance,"the 10-part docuseries on Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, which aired Sunday on ESPN.
The episode featured Bryant and Jordan at the 1998 All-Star Game, with Jordan both bemused and flattered by the playful, admiring teenager who was determined to come after him.
"That little Laker boy's gonna take everybody one-on-one," Jordan said to Tim Hardaway in the locker room.
The truth is, this had been happening from the moment Bryant entered the NBA in 1996.
"As early as I can remember, whenever the Lakers played the Bulls, Kobe would wait outside the tunnel for Michael to leave," said Tim Grover, a personal trainer who worked with Jordan in Chicago and later with Bryant in Los Angeles. "And Michael was always the last person to leave the locker room. He took forever. But Kobe would wait and wait for him."
And the rest of the Lakers players would be on the bus, waiting on Bryant -- a rookie -- who was waiting on Michael.
"But Kobe was like, 'The bus is going to have to wait. Because I don't know when I'm going to get this opportunity.'"
Lakers trainer Gary Vitti was in charge of travel and logistics at the time.
"I'm the guy that counted the heads on the bus and told the bus driver, 'OK. Now we can move. We got everybody,'" Vitti said. "And we were always one head short with Kobe."
Grover said Jordan generally took an hour to emerge from the locker room. He'd get treatment, study the box score, shower, get dressed in the training room and then finally emerge once the crowd had died down.
"I mean there was literally nobody else in the building," Grover said. "Lakers security would be like, 'Come on, come on, Kobe, the bus is leaving,' and you would hear different things, you know, 'This effing kid da, da, da.'"
Bryant didn't care. He'd wait as long as he had to. And when Jordan came out from the locker room, always immaculately suited, Bryant would start peppering him with questions about footwork or turnaround jumpers.
Grover would hang back and let Jordan and Bryant have their privacy as they walked out together. Sometimes he'd notice them stop, as Jordan would demonstrate a particular skill for Bryant.
"There's a bunch of other athletes that came up to Michael, that wanted him to 'mentor them,'" Grover said. "But when they found out how difficult it was to maintain that intensity and to be that relentless, most of them faded out.
"But Kobe kept it up. The more information that Michael gave him, Kobe got even more thirst."
Bryant would consume every piece of advice, work through every lesson Jordan offered. Then, like an eager student, he'd report back and ask for a new assignment.
"Michael thought everybody was annoying," Grover said with a laugh. "But here's the thing, it's how he said [Kobe] was annoying. When he talked about Kobe as annoying, it was like your little brother that's always like, 'Come on, come on, let's go, let's go do this, let's go.'"
When Jordan gave Bryant his number, Grover knew that really meant something. He had seen Jordan give other players the number to the team's security guards or a friend, who would then not put them in touch with him. It's not that Jordan didn't care or want to help. There's just only so much time and so few people who were actually capable of doing something with his advice.
"You had to earn the right to have that conversation," Grover said. "So with Kobe, Michael would have not taken the next call if he didn't see something in him."
Whether it was confidence or youthful ignorance, Bryant never questioned whether he was worthy of Jordan's attention and mentoring. He just relentlessly pursued it.
"You can't learn if you don't ask," Bryant said in 2019, during the interview he did for "The Last Dance." "I know a lot of players were intimidated by him and called him 'Black Jesus' and all this other stuff. I wasn't intimidated."
"I think he understood my competitiveness. I think he was looking at my journey, too. It was a rough couple of years for me in coming to the league, because at the time, the league was so much older. It was not as young as it is today. Having teenagers [Bryant was 18 when he entered the NBA] or guys in their early 20s was not the norm. And so being an outsider from that standpoint, I think he wanted to provide a little help for me, a little direction for me."
WHEN JORDAN RETIRED after the 1998 season, Bryant continued to seek Jordan out. But eventually Jordan came to him, too.
The first time was when Lakers coach Phil Jackson asked Jordan to meet with Bryant and talk to him about how to be patient playing the triangle offense.
Later, when Jordan returned for the 2001 season as a member of the Washington Wizards, he'd visit Bryant and Jackson in the Lakers' locker room after games.
That might seem like a small detail. But for Jordan to visit the opposing locker room was an enormous sign of respect.
"By the time [Jordan] was in Washington, now all of a sudden the Lakers have won a couple of titles and Kobe's really established who he is as a player," said former Bulls and Lakers trainer Chip Schaefer. "So you combine that with Michael, who is sort of transitioning into this more graceful elder statesman role."
Bryant was still the little brother in the relationship, but he had grown tall enough in stature that they could have different types of conversations.
"How do you get a group of guys to be on the same page and get them to that place to win a championship?" Bryant recalled in his interview for the documentary. "About dealing with teammates that care about all the wrong things. Teammates that are not as physical, but yet, we're going up against a team that is nothing but physical. How do you bring them along?"
How many people could Bryant have an honest conversation with about things like this? Which other players had walked in these shoes? Not many.
Jordan's advice was blunt.
Those teammates weren't going anywhere, Jordan told Bryant. And it won't be their legacy that suffers if you don't figure out how to get them on board.
"Fast-forward years from now," Bryant remembered Jordan saying. "Nobody's going to look at it and say, OK, [you] lost because that person had a bad attitude. Nobody's going to say that. They're going to say that you weren't able to get it done. So, you have to figure it out. Come hell or high water, you've got to figure it out."
Bryant had never lacked for self-confidence. But hearing this from his mentor underscored everything he had come to believe in.
"It was awesome advice," Bryant said.
BRYANT DIDN'T JUST ask Jordan questions, though. He studied him. The way he evolved his game as he aged and lost some athleticism. The way he handled himself in retirement. The goals he set. The mistakes he made.
When Jordan retired for the final time in 2003, Bryant watched carefully as Jordan moved into front-office and ownership roles.
Jordan would go to the Lakers' locker room to see Jackson and Bryant whenever they were in Washington, D.C., and later Charlotte.
"He'd hang out with Phil and [assistant coaches] Frank Hamblen and Tex Winter -- they'd all been together in Chicago," Vitti recalled. "Then we'd all go to the bus. And he and Kobe would do their thing, and then we'd have to wait for him."
By that point, waiting for Bryant to talk to Jordan wasn't something anyone took umbrage with.
"We knew that's what was going to happen, and it happened, and that was it," Vitti said. "Every once in a while Phil would get really pissed off, but for the most part, it was just part of the deal."
In 2007, when Bryant's knees began to ache, he hired Grover -- Jordan's trainer -- and asked him to help him rebuild his body the way he had done when Jordan came back from his first retirement.
That's when Grover started to see some key differences in the two men.
"Kobe needed to know everything," Grover said. "He wanted to know why we did this exercise? Why this many reps? Why this? Why that? Kobe, he was always, 'Why, why, why?' Because he was a student. He was learning.
"Michael was just like, 'I hired you to do a job. Just get me the end result. I don't need to know why I'm doing this, what's going on. But when I do ask, you better have the answer.'"
Both men had a relentless drive and work ethic. But Bryant's seemed to come from a different well.
"Michael knew when enough was enough," Grover said. "Like, 'OK, I got to shut my body down. I need to relax.' With Kobe, it was the complete opposite. If he couldn't sleep, Kobe was like, 'My time is being wasted. I need to go to the gym and get some shots up.'"
AS BRYANT APPROACHED the end of his playing career, he started asking different questions.
Was there anything he could do after basketball that would fill him with as much passion and purpose as the game had?
He didn't want to retire and unretire twice as Jordan had. He didn't want to leave the game but still be close to it as a coach or an owner. He needed something totally new to throw himself into, not something that reminded him of his past glories.
"Once I tore my Achilles," Bryant said in 2016, "I needed to hone in on what the purpose is going to be. I'd been searching for 15 years, but now, 'The rubber's got to hit the road.'
"I'd be lying in bed, with my cast, thinking, 'You gotta figure out what you want to do next. Because I'll be damned if I retire without a purpose. That's not going to happen to me.'"
He started talking to Jordan about it. Who else would understand how hard it was to let go?
Bryant started working on something completely different the last few years of his career. He'd call authors such as J.K. Rowling and directors such as Darren Aronofsky. He asked to visit the set of "Modern Family" and sit in on writers rooms.
He kept journals of movie and television projects he'd like to work out. He fleshed out characters and story arcs for children's books. He was bursting at the seams with ideas and concepts he'd put into production as soon as basketball was over.
When he learned that Jordan had the rights to footage shot of his final season, Bryant commissioned a camera crew to film his final seasons. Bryant even inquired about producing the documentary on Jordan's final season.
But this was Jordan's story to tell. And he dedicated Episode 5 of "The Last Dance" to Bryant, who died along with eight others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
"I admired him," Jordan said in his eulogy. "Because of his passion. You rarely see someone who's looking and trying to improve each and every day, not just in sports, but as a parent, as a husband.
"I am inspired by what he's done and what he shared with Vanessa and what he's shared with his kids."
Jordan drew inward and took a breath, realizing he had learned just as much as he had taught.
"I have a daughter who is 30. I just became a grandparent. And I have two twins, I have twins who are 6," he said.
"I can't wait to get home to become a girl dad and to hug them and to see the love and the smiles that they bring to us as parents. He taught me that just by looking at this tonight, looking at how he responded and reacted with the people that he actually loved. These are the things that we will continue to learn from Kobe Bryant."
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