Lakers: Michael Jordan noticed Kobe Bryant’s great potential early on

Way back in 1998, Michael Jordan saw what young Los Angeles Lakers rising star Kobe Bryant could evolve into.

When one time travels back to the 1997-98 campaign, Los Angeles Lakers youngster Kobe Bryant was a rather raw talent, to say the least. Many already understood just how supremely athletic Kobe was, but not many necessarily thought Bryant was a polished product.

However, one of the first real glimpses people saw of Kobe came on December 17, 1997. The Lakers were on the road against the world champion Chicago Bulls. To no surprise, all eyes were going to be on this lanky, but gifted teenager and none other than Michael Jordan.

The Bulls triumphed rather easily over the Lakers that day by a final tally of 104-83. On paper, that part alone does not have the appearance of anything exciting if you’re a Lakers fan. However, Kobe showed up and matched up very well against the game’s best player.

Granted Jordan dropped 36 that day and used many weapons in his arsenal to make it happen, Bryant had a cool 33 of his own. It was an impressive game for a figure who was still a teenager at that juncture.

As of then, Jordan was in his mid-thirties. While he was unanimously considered the best player in basketball, not everyone was certain as to how much more he could give to the game. He was aging whether someone wanted to admit it or not.

Needless to say, MJ did a ton for hoops and was largely responsible for popularizing the league and its image. Although that is true, some folks were curious as to who would be able to fill his shoes once he opted to leave the game.

Games like the one Kobe had at the United Center started to make people think maybe it is this very kid. It was a sensible thought because the two carried a similar playing style. Both Bryant and Jordan could soar through the air with the best of them and knew how to score.

Each player also possessed an insatiable hunger to win that defied explanation. Not long before the All-Star Game that season, the Lakers actually bested Michael’s Bulls in what was a much-anticipated rematch.

Where things got really juicy, though, was at the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. The Lakers’ young prodigy got voted in as a starter by fans who were mesmerized by his skillset.

It is important to again note that this young man was still a teenager and yet here he was playing with the big boys of the NBA. Perhaps it is even more important to note that Del Harris never started Kobe in a single game as of then.

This starkly contrasted Jordan’s initial phase in the NBA and the likes of what players like LeBron James later encountered. Despite things being the way they were, the first time All-Star was not intimidated by the underlying pressure of the moment. He was ready to shine.

Given who Kobe emulated, it was critical to him that he would do something special in that game.  He wanted to put the league on notice and prove he was not a phony.

The Bulls’ shooting guard went into that game knowing his counterpart was going to bring the heat. He was sure to mention it in ESPN’s documentary series entitled “The Last Dance.”

Per transcription from Corey Hansford of Lakers Nation, Jordan talked to fellow Eastern Conference teammates about this rising star. He let them know Kobe was no joke and that he was the type of guy who took matters in his own hands.

“That little Laker boy’s gonna take everybody one-on-one. … He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it. … ‘I’m going to make this a one-on-one game.’”

Provided that Bryant was only in his second season, this was rather high praise from a player of his caliber. Jordan detected that this Lower Merion High School product was cut from a different fabric.

It was a thought-provoking comment on MJ’s part. This is MJ we’re talking about – the GOAT for crying out loud. Albeit Kobe was not a bona fide superstar yet, Kobe clearly garnered enough of his respect to cause the former Tar Heel to make such a comment.

The key thing here is the following. Deep down Michael surely knew Kobe had a lot of skills and was going to blossom for that reason alone. Skills alone tend to only carry one so far, however.

His Airness saw in Bryant a potential successor to his throne. The former thought this way because Bryant already showed him enough signs of a will to win that eventually became legendary.

In other words, the then 19-year-old was afraid of no one. While not a seasoned pro quite yet, he was focused on making the lives of his opponents as miserable as possible. He was every bit as cursed as No. 23 in that aspect.

In the grand scheme of things, Michael got the better of No. 8. In fact, he received the All-Star Game MVP award after leading the way with 23 points.

However, Kobe held his own and netted 18 points in his first All-Star appearance. Even though Michael won the game, one could argue the Laker is the one who won the hearts of spectators that night.

There were various moments that night where the Laker’s second-year player made people think “wow.” One such moment came when Kevin Garnett threw up an alley-oop to Bryant. The pass was rather high in the air, but Bryant managed to grab the pass and throw down an electrifying dunk.

Sequences like that gave people reason for optimism. The league was going to be in good hands in the years to come and in large part because of this tremendously gifted teenager.

Bryant’s inquisitiveness was also on display that game. While many in the past tried to get through to Jordan, it was usually a failed mission. This youngster got through to the Chicago legend that night, though, with a question that led to many more in the future.

As Hansford revealed, the Black Mamba asked who he idolized about his patented turnaround shot. Kobe went on to say that MJ gave the kid a “detailed” answer, which surely made the then-sophomore all the more curious to learn more.

Among an incredible amount of other moves, Kobe Bean became an artist with that same shot. In the documentary, he emphasized how important Michael was to his growth as an athlete.

Certainly, it took a lot of hard work behind the scenes to become a night-after-night threat. Bryant was noteworthy for it, but he stressed that Michael was as instrumental as anyone in terms of becoming the type of player he was. Michael was like a genius professor, whereas Bryant was the new kid in class, the equivalent of a sponge trying to absorb every morsel of wisdom he could.

While the two shared numerous other moments in the years ahead, it is that very night that stands out. Due to his rock-solid performance in the mecca of the basketball world, Kobe validated he belonged in the conversation as one of the league’s best players.

Moreover, he gained a supporter and later on in life a true friend in Michael Jordan. For all we know, inquiries like the one Kobe asked Michael in the 1998 All-Star Game likely drove the latter nuts in the short-term. Michael’s concentration at the time was on winning a second three-peat, and here’s this showy 19-year-old taking up his space.

Nonetheless, it proved how driven Bryant was and it was the sign of things to come. He was relentless in his pursuit to be the best player possible, much like his hero.

Next: Five times Magic sacrificed himself

While the Bulls’ star was widely considered the best to ever lace them up, little did they know then that this scrawny guy from L.A. would go on to become one of the greatest players ever. And Michael Jordan of all the people in the world was among the first wave to notice this kid’s otherworldly potential.

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