We all know the end to the saga of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said at Bryant’s memorial service. “I promise you from this day forward that I will live with the memories that I had a little brother that I tried to help in every way that I could. Please rest in peace little brother.”
In the beginning, though, the two had to feel each other out. One iconic photograph from their first meeting changed perceptions of how this potential rivalry might pan out. Let’s explore how this moment came to be and what these two NBA greats really said to each other as a photographer snapped the famous shot.
Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan’s collision course
Bryant, a literal teenager, was increasingly hyped up as the heir to Jordan’s throne. MJ himself, having just collected more NBA Finals rings than he could fit on one hand, was still turning in elite performances. So, naturally, their first meeting transcended the NBA itself.
The Hornets chose Bryant No. 13 overall in the 1996 NBA Draft. They immediately flipped him to a playoffs-focused Lakers, who also spent big on Shaquille O’Neal to shore up their chances. Bryant got little playing time at first but quickly showed promise. With 7.6 points, 1.3 assists and 1.9 rebounds, he made a case for the All-Rookie second team.
Kobe’s rapid grasp of the NBA’s high level of play positioned him as the next big star. Jordan, a notorious trash talker, wasn’t necessarily expected to handle this potential pretender to the throne with grace. But when titans clash, the results rarely settle on the expected.
Bryant and Jordan’s first meeting
Bryant first ran into Jordan in his 19th NBA game. The moment he guarded the greatest basketball player of all time, he realized that game film wasn’t enough. Jordan blew past him with lightning-fast spin and had ample open space for an uncontested dunk.
“I’ve seen [Jordan] pirouette away from the screen so many times,” Bryant said at a press conference after his own retirement. “Every time I said, ‘I’m not gonna f*** up that one, just force him over the screen.'”
The young athlete thought he was prepared for Jordan. But he promptly realized this was far from true. Jordan, familiar with the look of a new player taken off guard, prickled in response. As Bryant told it, Jordan ran back down the court and said, “A lot faster in person, isn’t it?”
What Kobe and Jordan really said to each other in that iconic photograph
Jordan blew the doors off Bryant within seconds of matching up with his new competition. This is likely the moment when Kobe realized he isn’t ready for His Airness. So he did something few players ever would squaring off with an elite athlete like Jordan for the first time.
As the pair waited for a free throw, hands on their knees, Bryant asked Jordan about one of his most devastating post moves. The youth proved he was not a snotty young upstart attitude at all, despite his love for that sort of thing under other circumstances. And Jordan, a player fiercely dedicated to a brutal psychological, also went against type. He told Bryant to feel out the defender with his legs, figure out which way to spin, then step back for that devastating fadeaway.
This is why the photograph is so iconic. Even if you don’t know what’s being said, you can tell it’s a key moment between the two stars. Jordan, being Jordan, didn’t simply embrace Kobe after this, of course. He challenged him. Even in the moving speech he gave at Kobe’s memorial, he was honest that he found Kobe’s incessant questions annoying.
But it wasn’t irritating in the way one feels with a stranger or even a co-worker. Jordan took Kobe under his wing like a sibling. That was the remarkable relationship between two of the greatest NBA players of all time. And it all started as a photographer snapped this famous shot.