On This Day: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant Played Each Other for the First Time, 23 Years Ago

by Josh Lanier

When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA he was a cocky teenager who said he would “destroy” Michael Jordan when they first met. It didn’t go well for him. But Bryant was 18 and coming off the bench for the Lakers. When they met as starters a year later in 1997, what most NBA fans consider their first meeting, Bryant was more prepared and ready to take on his idol.

What we know about Bryant now we were only learning when they squared off Dec. 17, 1997. His tenacity and sheer force of will were something to behold. He was smart with the ball, a great shooter, and a leader that drove his team. Jordan was all that as well. But he had the added pressure of defending his legacy. Heading into that game it was important for Jordan to prove he wasn’t ready to give up the crown to Kobe.

Bryant, who was only 19 years old at the time, needed to back up his boasting, as well. He needed to prove he was as good as he promised Laker Nation he was.

The Showdown in Chicago

The game was rife with memorable highlights. Kobe Bryant dropping his famous fadeaway on Jordan from 10 feet away in the post. That highlight still is on every Bryant sizzle reel.

But Michael Jordan had his moments too.

Over and over, Jordan proved that his pull-up jumper was still the best shot in the game. His acrobatic dunks and lay-ups were what sold sneakers, but Jordan could embarrass just about any defender with his jump shot. He got Bryant a few times. But Kobe eventually moved closers forcing Jordan to move with the ball more often.

The moment that likely won the night didn’t affect the game at all. It was when Jordan gave Bryant some advice as they stood near each other during a calm second during the game. Bryant wanted to know how Jordan pulled off a move in the paint. Jordan told him to feel the defender with his legs to know which way to spin, NBA.com said.

In the end, Jordan finished with 36 points and Bryant with 33. The Bulls got the win, dismantling the Lakers 104-83.

After the game, Bryant said he relished the opportunity.

“My father taught me when I was growing up don’t back down from any man,” Bryant told reporters. “He’s fired up, you get fired up. Go blow to blow.

“Whenever I have the chance to guard Michael Jordan, I want to guard him. I want him. The ultimate challenge.”

Jordan admitted Bryant was good heading toward great.

“He certainly has a lot of skill, you see that,” Jordan said in his postgame interview, NBA.com said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. I think it’s just a matter of time for him. You realize how good he is. He’s actually (old enough to be) in his second year of college.”

Michael Jordan Pays Respects to Kobe Bryant

Their rivalry stayed friendly. Off the court, they were close friends. When Kobe Bryant died earlier this year with his daughter in a helicopter crash, Jordan said he was heartbroken. He broke down during the memorial service.

“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” he said during his speech, USA Today 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.”

Bryant and Jordan started against each other only 8 times. Bryant won 5 of those meetings. While Jordan has more championships — 6 to 5, Bryant scored more points. Jordan said he’ll cherish their time on the court, but their time off of it even more.

“But his attitude to compete and play against someone he felt like he could enhance and improve his game, that’s what I loved about the kid. I absolutely loved the kid. No matter where he saw me, it was a challenge. And I admired him because of his passion, you rarely see someone who is looking and trying to improve each and every day, not just in sports, but as a parent, as a husband. I am inspired by what he’s done, and what he’s shared with Vanessa, and what he’s shared with his kids.”