The star of the decade against the teenager who was trying to follow a similar path. Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant put on a show that will never be forgotten.
The 1998 NBA All-Star Game saw two legends cross paths at very different stages of their career.
On one side was Michael Jordan, who was in his final season with the Chicago Bulls, a timeline we are now seeing played out on ESPN’s documentary « The Last Dance. »
On the other was Kobe Bryant, who was making his All-Star Game debut at the age of 19, making him the youngest starter in the event’s history.
It might not be remembered as one of the best All-Star Games of recent memory, but it is certainly one of the most memorable because it was the first of many duels between the two Hall of Famers.
An All-Star Game to remember
For a short period of time, it looked like Jordan wasn’t going to be able to participate in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game because of the flu. He started to feel unwell in the days leading up to All-Star Weekend while on a golf trip in Las Vegas, Nevada. He had to cut that trip short and felt so under the weather that he thought about going straight to Chicago instead of New York.
In the end, Jordan decided to go to New York because his family was already there. However, he was bed-ridden all of Saturday with a 101-degree temperature, casting doubt over his availability for Sunday.
« If (it were Saturday) I would not have played, » he said. « I had a hard time sitting up. I got up and moved around a little bit this morning. »
Somehow, Jordan mustered up the energy to play under the bright lights of New York’s Madison Square Garden. Part of his motivation might have been because this was potentially his last All-Star appearance. (This came in the middle of « The Last Dance » season, which was expected to be Chicago’s last with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson). He might have also been motivated to go head-to-head with a rising star who was drawing comparisons to him.
Back then, Kobe Bryant wasn’t the Kobe Bryant we know him as today. Following a somewhat pedestrian rookie season in which he averaged 7.6 points in 15.5 minutes per game, Bryant started to make a name for himself in his sophomore season as a sixth man on the Lakers. In the 42 games leading up to the All-Star Game, he averaged 17.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 26.7 minutes per game off the bench.
In addition to those numbers, Bryant quickly became a fan favourite with his electric style of play, to the extent that he earned the second-most All-Star votes among guards in the Western Conference for the 1998 All-Star Game.
It didn’t take Bryant long to make his presence felt in his All-Star Game debut. And following a couple of big-time dunks, it was clear: Bryant had arrived to challenge the teacher. Jordan, who was on the brink of 35, responded accordingly, knowing he had to teach his student a lesson. It set the table for an epic back-and-forth in which Jordan and Bryant dazzled the Madison Square Garden with picture-perfect fadeaways, powerful dunks and acrobatic layups. The only person who could stop the two from going back-and-forth all game long was Western Conference head coach George Karl, who decided to sit Bryant the entire fourth quarter.
« He hit those two turnarounds, » Bryant said afterwards. »And I was like, ‘Cool, let’s get it on.' »
« He came at me pretty early, » said Jordan. « I would if I was him. If I see someone that’s maybe sick or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. You know, I liked his attitude. »
The Eastern Conference ended up winning the game by a final score of 135-114. The MVP? It would go to the person who was questionable to play only 24 hours before the game began. Jordan finished with 23 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes of play.
Despite not playing in the fourth quarter, Bryant held his own by scoring 18 points and pulling down six rebounds in 22 minutes of play. He had arrived.
A special relationship
Time ended up building a true brotherhood between the teacher and the student, who best personified him on the court. And that’s not an exaggeration. Jordan said so himself that he saw a lot of his own game in Bryant.
« I don’t think I would lose, » Jordan said a few years ago when talking about players he would’ve liked to have played one-on-one. « Other than to Kobe Bryant because he steals all of my moves. »
Jordan also revealed the true meaning of their relationship following the tragedy, earlier this year, that took Bryant’s life.
« Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends, » Jordan said. « But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend, he was like a little brother. Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe. »
Today’s episode of « The Last Dance » will shine an even brighter light on their relationship. In a preview for the documentary, director Jason Hehir told Richard Deitsch of The Athletic that they finished a scene with Bryant about a week before his death.
« To hear Kobe in that scene say he’s (Michael) like my big brother and then to have Michael give that famous speech that he gave at Kobe’s memorial service, saying, ‘Rest in peace, little brother,’ it just shows you how genuine that relationship was between the two of them. That scene is so much more poignant now and it was such a cool scene to begin with. »
Ahead of the episode, then, it only seems right to take it back to when Bryant and Jordan had their first great duel, under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden on Feb. 8, 1998.