On Feb. 8, 1998, a 19-year-old Kobe Bryant and 34-year-old Michael Jordan clashed on the hardwood of Madison Square Garden. Their duel inside the world’s most famous arena would go down in history as not only a battle between two legends of the game, but also a true “passing of the torch” moment.
Let’s set the scene:
The 1997-98 season was Kobe’s second in the NBA. He spent his first often coming off the bench for the Lakers behind guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, but he did participate in the 1997 Rookie Challenge and the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star weekend.
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He became the league’s youngest-ever dunk champion at the age of 18, displaying the self-assured swagger that would become his trademark.
18-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant captured the memorable 1997 Slam Dunk Contest title.
📺: 8pm/et on TNT pic.twitter.com/W8wMkJ0C4G
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) February 15, 2020
Bryant’s sophomore campaign launched him on the path to stardom. An increase in playing time corresponded with a big jump in his scoring average, from 7.6 to 15.4 points per game. Through fan voting, Bryant was named the youngest All-Star in NBA history, joining his teammates Jones, Van Exel and Shaquille O’Neal in New York City.
Then, there was Michael Jordan.
Looking back, 1998 was one of the highest peaks of MJ’s legendary career. He and the Bulls had won their fifth championship the previous season, taking down the Jazz in an NBA Finals series that included “the Flu Game” and an iconic Jordan buzzer-beater in Game 1.
During the 1997-98 season, which would go on to be called Jordan’s “last dance” for Chicago as the team grappled with GM Jerry Krause, “His Airness” averaged a league-leading 28.7 points per game. That wasn’t even in the top eight seasons of his career by scoring, but it was enough to earn him a fifth MVP award.
The Bulls would go on to win their sixth ring in 1998, with Jordan dropping 45 points on the Jazz in a heroic Game 6 effort to clinch the series. His last shot ever for Chicago was a clutch jumper to secure victory in front of a stunned crowd in Salt Lake City.
June 14, 1998 #NBAvault pic.twitter.com/Ms2ctNfAod
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) June 14, 2018
But before any of that, there was the All-Star Game.
Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan in the 1998 NBA All-Star Game
Bryant was making his All-Star debut, while Jordan was playing in his 12th career All-Star Game. It would ultimately be the last All-Star appearance for MJ as a member of the Bulls, although he’d go on to play in the game twice more in his career as a member of the Wizards.
Jordan also nearly missed the game because of a case of the flu.
“If it were Saturday I would not have played,” Jordan said. “I had a hard time sitting up. I got up and moved around a little bit this morning.”
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The duo had faced off in competition four times before; twice in Kobe’s rookie season and twice in the 1997-98 season. In fact, they had played each other just one week before the 1998 All-Star Game, with Bryant’s Lakers defeating Jordan’s Bulls, 112-87. MJ dropped 31 points in that game, 11 more than Kobe’s 20.
During the 1997-98 season, the relationship between the two had grown closer. Kobe had dropped 33 points in a loss to Chicago earlier in the campaign, which was enough to make an impression on MJ. Jordan told the rising star that he could reach out to him for advice, which Kobe did. A lot.
“At times, I thought, ‘Why am I giving away all this information that he’s going to use right against me?'” Jordan told The Ringer’s Jackie MacMullan. “No matter how I’d start the conversation, he knew the answer. It wasn’t like I was telling him anything that he didn’t know. I think I was more or less confirming it.”
Jordan knew he was turning into something of a mentor for Bryant, but he also knew that meant the competitive young star would be going at him early and often. He even talked some trash about “that little Laker boy” in the locker room before the game.
“He was going to come after me. And I told everybody, I said, “Look, I know this young kid is going to come at me from L.A., he’s gonna come at me—and I’m not going to hold back,” Jordan said. “So in that sense, I feel like I got to protect something. Sure enough, in the game, it was that competition. It was almost like looking in a mirror, in a sense, that, you know—why would I want to play anything less? Why would I want to play anyone less? I want to go at someone who I feel like I respect and I want to challenge.”
Bryant did just that, taking Jordan on from the opening tip. But MJ, of course, gave as good as he got.
Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan at the 1998 #NBAAllStar Game! pic.twitter.com/z4buS4p1tk
— #NBAAllStar (@NBAAllStar) February 4, 2017
Jordan hit a pair of early shots as if to send a message that he wasn’t playing around.
“He hit those two turnarounds and I was like, ‘Cool, let’s get it on,’” Kobe said, per Sports Illustrated.
Bryant responded by helping force a turnover with his defense on MJ, then throwing down a 360 dunk in transition.
“It was fun,” Jordan said. “I was trying to fend him off as much as I could. He came at me pretty early. If I see someone that’s maybe sick or whatever you’ve got to attack him. I like his attitude.”
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In the end, Jordan’s team of Eastern Conference All-Stars emerged with a 135-114 win. MJ dropped 23 points (fittingly) and was named All-Star Game MVP for the third and final time in his career. Bryant was the game’s second-highest scorer with 18 points of his own, leading the Western Conference.
Kobe gave it his all, but the apprentice wasn’t quite ready to overtake the master.
Still, it was the game that made Kobe Bryant a household name in the NBA. It would remain that way for decades to come.
For the rest of his Hall of Fame career, Bryant continued to idolize Jordan and tried to replicate his work ethic and competitive fire. He even took a page out of MJ’s book by getting the turnaround jumper down to a science — a fact that Jordan jokingly says he regrets.
“The one thing that I did give him that I felt like I regretted — but then again, I appreciated — was his turnaround fadeaway. He learned my move,” Jordan said. “He learned that to a point where he would use it — relentlessly, especially when you know you’re getting double-teamed. … I took great pride in seeing him utilize that, even though he didn’t do it against me that much.”
The two would meet again twice more in the All-Star Game during Jordan’s time with the Wizards, but it was never as special as that first time in Madison Square Garden with seemingly the whole world watching on.