Longtime NBA observers were surprised earlier this year when Michael Jordan disclosed during the star-studded memorial service for Kobe Bryant that he and the Los Angeles Lakers legend were close friends.
“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan said, tears streaming down his face, during his eulogy for Bryant in February. “I promise you, from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing the little brother that I tried to help in every way I could. Please rest in peace, little brother.”
What was unknown at the time—and only revealed on Sunday night, on ESPN’s The Last Dance—is that Bryant, who died on January 26 in a helicopter crash that killed nine others, including his daughter Gianna, felt the same way.
“He’s like my big brother,” Bryant said in an interview included in the fifth episode of the ESPN docuseries. “I truly hate having discussions about who would win one-on-one. Or fans saying you beat Michael one-on-one. I feel like, yo, what you get from me is from him. I don’t get five championships here without him. Because he guided me so much and gave me so much great advice.”
Bryant and Jordan first met on the court as competitors during the 1996 NBA season, when Bryant was an 18-year-old rookie. He scored 33 points; Jordan scored 36 points, and the Bulls won. The Last Dance picks up on their relationship during the 1998 All-Star Game, which was Bryant’s first and Jordan’s last as a member of the Bulls.
“That little Laker boy’s going to take everybody one-on-one,” Jordan said in the locker room before the game. “He don’t let the game come to him. He just go out there and take it.”
Especially in his early years, Bryant was considered to be a ball hog by many NBA observers and even players. “If I was his teammate, I wouldn’t pass him the fucking ball!” an exasperated Jordan said in the pre-game footage after hearing a story about Bryant missing four shots in a row. “You want this ball again, brother, you better rebound.”
But despite that tough talk in the locker room, Bryant said that Jordan was always a source of advice and counsel. “It was a rough couple of years for me coming into the league. Because, at the time, the league was so much older. It’s not as young as it is today. Nobody was really thinking much of me,” Bryant said during his interview, which was completed just one week before his death. “I was the kid who shot a bunch of air balls, you know what I mean? At that point, Michael provided a lot of guidance for me. I had a question about shooting this turnaround shot, so I asked him about it. He gave me a great, detailed answer, but on top of that he said if you ever need anything, give me a call.”