NBA player rivalries, like the made up one between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, are long gone

Episode 5 of the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” was dedicated to the late Kobe Bryant. In the wake of his death, slivers of the friendship he shared with Michael Jordan have become public. Jordan’s teary-eyed speech at Bryant’s memorial revealed that they called and texted each other at all hours, talking basketball and everything else, that they weren’t just admiring coworkers but real friends. 

The episode featured the NBA’s former stalwarts bonding at the Olympics, backslapping and talking smack at All-Star Games, offering a rare behind-the-scenes lens into the NBA fraternity, unfurling a rarely acknowledged similarity between the past and the present: Despite what the man yelling at you from inside your television says, the cream of the NBA’s crop have always been friends. 

Stars enter each other's orbit and gravitate toward each other. Friendships and grudges are a natural byproduct of any tight-knit ecosystem of men who can relate to only one another. They face off on the court, but off it, they often share the same unique interests and misgivings. They help each other navigate the road less traveled.

Kobe and Jordan were friends, just like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson eventually became friends, just like how Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are friends, just like Ja Morant and Zion Williamson are friends. “The Last Dance” is a medley of former rivals — Magic, Bird, Johnson, Charles Barkley — paying each other mutual respect. In fact, the only feelings of bitterness to endure the decades have been between the Bulls and the “Bad Boys” Pistons.

While NBA player rivalries certainly feel like a relic, don’t blame the players. Blame the shifting scope of the media’s influence. The problem isn’t that today’s players are friends. It’s that we know they are friends. It’s harder to imagine them wanting to rip each other’s heads off on the court.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls eyes the basket as he is guarded by Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game in Los Angeles. (Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty Images)

Two of the most famous men in America, Jordan and Bryant would have had a harder time keeping their friendship a secret in 2020. Some social media manager would have stumbled upon the two legends ambling through the tunnel on one of the many late nights that Bryant awaited Jordan after the two squared off. Remember when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sparked a news cycle by talking in a hallway? 

Another important factor: freedom of movement, which makes friendships more newsworthy and intriguing. Durant and Irving pulled no punches on each other in the 2017 NBA Finals, but they did team up last summer. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns found their way to the same team before the trade deadline.

Kobe and Jordan weren’t maniacally secretive about their friendship. In interviews, they were admiring, complimentary, offering up anecdotes about basketball-related mentorship, but they rarely volunteered extracurricular details, like the fact that they discussed things only they could understand, about navigating the business of basketball, about marriage, about Phil Jackson and the triangle offense he and assistant coach Tex Winter brought from Chicago to Los Angeles.

It’s tempting to suggest that as two premier storytellers and media manipulators, both men understood that they were selling a product that would be more compelling if the world didn’t know they were friends. But according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, they hid their friendship for the opposite reason: to quell comparisons. As Jordan put it in his speech at Kobe’s memorial, "Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons. I just wanted to talk about Kobe."

That didn’t exactly happen. 

The fact that Kobe and Jordan weren’t openly friends gave fans a sliver of room to imagine a rivalry, and they took that sliver and ran with it, constantly debating how one would have fared in the other’s era, denigrating Bryant for copying Jordan, even when Jordan himself covered for him, telling reporters that the process of success looks the same.

In the twilight of Jordan’s career and the beginning of Bryant’s, you could picture them both seething at night, one’s success lighting a fire under the other, Bryant furrowing his brow at the thought of the scope of the mountaintop, Jordan staring wearily from the top as the newcomer started his climb. Who knew, at the time, that Jordan willingly lent Bryant his hand, offering up the tricks of the trade?

While fans argued into the wee hours on Twitter, Jordan and Bryant texted about their kids. We imagined what it would be like for them to play one-on-one in their primes. Former Bull BJ Armstrong witnessed Jordan and Bryant share the same curiosity at dinner one evening. Ironically, if we knew they were also interested in the debate, we might have been less interested.

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