Despite his renowned competitive drive, Michael Jordan did not wish to expend his full energy at the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. He’d battled the flu throughout the week and logged 201 games over the previous two seasons. He would retire less than a year later, telling reporters he had nothing left to prove to the league.
But in that February exhibition, Jordan felt he had no choice but to engage his motor to its full capacity. He couldn’t allow a tenacious 19-year-old opponent to show him up on a national stage.
So, Jordan went toe-to-toe, often in isolation, against Kobe Bryant, the kid who with every fiber of his being wanted to embody the veteran superstar’s greatest traits. In Bryant, Jordan found the rare player who mirrored his own insatiable desire to annihilate his foes. There was something exhilarating to Jordan in that reflection.
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“He’s coming at me. That’s his approach,” said a smiling Jordan in a televised interview during the first half. “If I knew someone was sick, certainly the first thing I’d do would be to go after them.”
At halftime, Jordan added with a smirk: “Oh I will defend myself, without a doubt.”
Bryant, who died at 41 on Sunday in a helicopter crash, became known for his spirit as much as for his bucket-getting skills, athleticism and creative flair. Even as a teenager, he used his fierce edge to perform well while at the center of attention, part of the reason he captivated NBA fans so completely once Jordan left the sport and why his death prompted such widespread outpouring of public emotion.
Bryant established that dynamism against Jordan in the 1998 All-Star Game — a competition in which he faced immense pressure to prove himself worthy of being the face of basketball’s next generation of stars.
After receiving a leakout pass following a Jordan miss, Bryant threw down a 360 dunk. Later, Bryant pulled off a behind-the-back dribble in transition masked as a dump-off pass and finished a wrong-footed layup from a tight angle. He flashed a satisfied grin as he trotted back to the defensive end of the floor.
Bryant ended the game at Madison Square Garden with 18 points and six rebounds in 22 minutes. Jordan earned MVP honors with his 23-8-6 line.
“Once I stepped out on the court I wasn’t as nervous,” Bryant said, “because I was at home.”
At his best, Jordan made his basketball-watching audience want to work harder and strive to achieve unmatched excellence. Bryant, also relentless on the hardwood, showed a similar appetite for becoming singularly awesome. As a result, he too inspired his supporters.
After news of Bryant’s death broke Sunday afternoon, Jordan in a statement called Bryant “like a little brother” to him and lauded the iconic drive he first recognized when the Lakers legend was a teenager. Other former and current NBA players were quick to point out how Bryant’s focused approach to the game helped them form their own professional dedication.
Bryant’s intensity defined him long before a stockpile of awards and NBA championships elevated him to superstardom and a place among all-time greats. It was the piece of his iconic character he was born with — and the one that allowed him to achieve everything else.
It was what possessed him when he stepped on the Madison Square Garden floor in 1998 and dared Jordan to dance.