Los Angeles Lakers: A potential passing of the torch vs. New Orleans Pelicans

(Photo by VINCENT LAFORET / AFP) (Photo credit should read VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by VINCENT LAFORET / AFP) (Photo credit should read VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Lakers have been involved in the passing of the torch previously, and we could see another one occur tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant‘s dream was to reach a level of greatness that would leave Michael Jordan no choice but to pass the torch upon retirement. As the tears ran down Jordan’s face during the vigil on Monday, one thing became abundantly clear to the basketball world: Kobe Bryant had more than achieved his goal.

As I watched the montage of the two all-time greats playing in the background, I couldn’t help but flashback to their greatest moments as competitors.

First, of course, there’s the story Michael told of a disappointed Kobe discovering that his rival hadn’t brought shoes to his post-retirement visit to Staples Center.

There’s also the game in 2003 where Kobe wore a pair of Jordan’s to face off against his idol. Michael Jordan allegedly quipped, per Complex, “You can put the shoes on, but you ain’t gonna never fill ’em!” after a close one-point win that night.

This game, in turn, inspired Kobe to drop 42 of his 55 in the first half of their next meeting. The Lakers won the game 108 to 94.

Additionally, there were also a few All-Star moments. The most notable, however, was the 2003 All-Star game that culminated in Bryant robbing Jordan of the game-winning shot with two clutch free throws.

Despite all of these wonderful moments, there is one moment that stands above the rest; December 17th, 1997. This duel between a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant and a seasoned Michael Jordan is where it all began.

The defending champion Bulls handled business as usual in a 104-83 route. On any other night, this would have been a forgettable regular-season win for an aging team aiming to notch their second three-peat. However, this was no ordinary blowout.

Even as a second-year player, Kobe Bryant was a fearless competitor. While many would have cowered in the midst of the greatest player of all time, Kobe flourished. He attacked Michael on both ends of the floor en route to a duel for the ages.

When the dust settled, Kobe finished with an impressive 33 points. Michael had 36.

After the game, a laser-focused Michael Jordan dismissed the notion that this was anything other than a regular-season basketball game. However, it was one simple question during the post-game interview that caused Jordan to smile uncontrollably:

“Did you impart any wisdom to him (Kobe) throughout the game?”

Jordan’s face lit up and that laser focus suddenly faded. He mentioned a moment at halfcourt where Kobe Bryant asked him how to identify where the defender was moving while operating with his back to the basket. Jordan explained to the interviewer that he could feel the defense with his legs and react accordingly.

After hearing this secret, the interviewer appeared surprised. He asked with a grin “So you don’t have a problem giving away trade secrets in the game?” Jordan simply responded that someone had once done that for him.

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So there you have it. A notoriously confident Kobe Bryant learned a valuable lesson in humility. In doing so, he tugged on the heartstrings of the greatest competitor the league had ever seen and, for a brief moment, got a man in his final act to hearken back to his younger days. On that night, the two players planted the seed that would become a lifelong friendship.

As we flash forward over twenty years, the Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan story has come to an unfortunate end. However, in basketball, a new chapter is never far behind.

LeBron James, now 35 years old and nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, finds himself in a truly Jordan-esque position.

The Lakers, like the Bulls in 1997, sit atop the Western Conference. They’ll soon embark on a tough stretch where they’ll face the Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Philadelphia Sixers over the course of the next week or so. Understandably, James will be focused on this game, this season, and the mission to win a title for his fallen Laker brother Kobe Bryant.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Zion Williamson’s journey is just beginning. Although there is certainly a chance to make the playoffs this season, the reality is that there is plenty of time left for the 19-year-old phenom to carve out a Hall of Fame career. Tonight is merely a game against a hero. A chance to make some semblance of a statement.

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When the dust settles Tuesday night, will this be merely a regular-season game between a contender and a playoff hopeful, or something much more? Although LeBron would love to honor Kobe with a championship, maybe the ultimate honor is igniting a relationship with the player who will carry the torch next.