For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.
Here’s an excerpt from Episode 7, which explores maybe the Icons Club’s most complicated relationship: the one between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Here we highlight Bryant’s determination to learn everything he could from his hero, Michael Jordan.
Charles Barkley says Kobe Bryant was always respectful when their paths crossed, but it was clear to him the kid planned to go it alone.
“He was always cordial. Every time I saw him,” Barkley says. “But you know … you read the stories about Kobe walking in a restaurant, his teammates are at the table together, he goes to another table. He was not interested in being friends with people.”
Now we know that that wasn’t entirely true. Kobe’s pursuit of a title ran parallel to another singular focus: his enchantment with Michael Jordan. Bryant began mimicking his moves, studying his approach. It became an obsession.
It also, says Shaquille O’Neal, became more fodder for the guys on the team to tease him.
“We noticed that everything he did looked like Michael. From the moves, to the walk, to the talk,” O’Neal says. “It was like an ongoing joke. Every time he did something, we’d be like ‘damn.’ One time he was sick in a game, we was, ‘Damn Mike, that’s the flu game, Mike?’”
The prologue of this podcast was about Kobe’s surprising relationship with Jordan. It’s been a while since we’ve talked about it, so I want to remind you how it happened.
In 1998, his second season, a 19-year-old Kobe was voted in as a starter for the West team in the All-Star Game, even though he wasn’t even a starter yet on his own team. He was gunning for Jordan.
And, Jordan tells me, he was ready.
He was going to come after me. And I told everybody, I said, “Look, I know this young kid is going to come at me from L.A., he’s gonna come at me—and I’m not going to hold back.” So in that sense, I feel like I got to protect something. Sure enough, in the game, it was that competition. It was almost like looking in a mirror, in a sense, that, you know—why would I want to play anything less? Why would I want to play anyone less? I want to go at someone who I feel like I respect and I want to challenge.
Kobe grabbed the attention of discerning Icons everywhere with his performance that night, including a 360 dunk and a behind-the-back dribble in transition. He scored 18 points in 22 minutes but Jordan, who was ailing with the flu, responded with 23 points, eight assists, six rebounds, and game MVP honors.
While that duel generated a lot of chatter, the seminal moment in their relationship had already occurred, two months earlier, when the Bulls played the Lakers and Bryant bounded off the bench to score 33 points in 29 minutes.
Yet what impressed Jordan the most was his zero turnovers.
MJ, who countered with 36 points, was surprised, after he burned the kid with a turnaround in the post, that Kobe started asking him detailed questions about the move as the game was in progress.
Afterward, Jordan heard himself uttering the same words to Kobe that Dr. J had said to him 12 years earlier: “If you need anything, just call …’’
Kobe did. Often.
The next season the NBA players were locked out and Bryant hit up Jordan during all hours of the day and night, sometimes as late as two or three o’clock in the morning. Jordan was alternately amused and annoyed.
“At first, he was an irritant, but then, secondly, it became, ‘Man, it’s a sense of respect,’ and I respect him for that and, from that point on, it was I’m going to do whatever I can to help him out.”
There were moments, Jordan admits, when he would question his decision to help the kid. It was something he hadn’t done before. He had always believed if you wanted to gain membership to the Icons Club, you had to figure things out for yourself.
I would lay in my bed after talking to him and say, “Man, man, I mean, that’s pretty cool.” But yet, I don’t know if I could have ever done that where I’m bleeding information from someone. At times, I thought, “Why am I giving away all this information that he’s going to use right against me?” No matter how I’d start the conversation, he knew the answer. It wasn’t like I was telling him anything that he didn’t know. I think I was more or less confirming it.
Jordan shared the little details, stressing the importance of a wide stance, or how to clandestinely hook a player in the post.
The one thing that I did give him that I felt like I regretted—but then again, I appreciated—was his turnaround fadeaway. He learned my move. He learned that to a point where he would use it—relentlessly, especially when you know you’re getting double-teamed. … I took great pride in seeing him utilize that, even though he didn’t do it against me that much.
Jordan’s advice to a young Kobe included developing a thick skin with his teammates. It was not a popularity contest, he reminded him. Establish yourself as a leader. Don’t hesitate to prod the players that need it. Be relentless about it.