CLEVELAND -- When Phil Jackson arranged for his former pupil and Kobe Bryant's idol, Michael Jordan, to meet the brash, young Los Angeles Lakers phenom for the first time, there was one nugget of knowledge Jordan imparted to Bryant.
Of course, Jordan had to listen to the kid brag about how he could beat him one-on-one before he passed on the message to Bryant, but here’s what one scorer at heart told to another as the secret to unlocking all the NBA buckets you could ever ask for: Develop a one-dribble pull-up jump shot.
Years later, it was Bryant’s turn to talk to Kyrie Irving -- coached by Bryant’s USA Basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, at Duke and then starting his career under Bryant’s former teammate, Byron Scott, in Cleveland.
And just like Bryant’s fadeaway mimicked MJ's, and his gait mimicked MJ's, and his celebrations mimicked MJ's and even the inflection of his voice mimicked MJ's, so too did the advice he chose to bestow upon Irving.
“When he first came into the league, we talked about the importance of a pull-up jump shot,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ 120-111 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. “We talked about that a lot. And being able to stop on a dime and shoot. A player of his caliber that can shoot the 3 and get all the way to the rim, it’s important to keep the defense off balance with one-, two-, three-dribble pull-ups.”
As much as Wednesday’s game was built up to be about Bryant versus LeBron James for what would be the first of their final three meetings before Bryant retires (Sunday’s All-Star Game and another regular-season game in March), it really meant maybe even more to Irving.
You see, Bryant, with his 20 seasons and five rings under his belt, has nothing left to take from the game. Between now and mid-April, when he laces them up for the final time in what’s sure to be a surreal night at Staples Center, he is opening himself up.
“I think it’s important to share whatever knowledge that I’ve gained throughout the years so hopefully they can pass it on to the generation after,” Bryant said.
Everyone from Nike to the league office tried to peg Bryant and James against one another as rivals, but the reality is that Bryant was already a seven-year veteran when James entered the league.
“To me LeBron is still young,” Bryant said Wednesday, openly guessing that James was in his 10th season and then reacting as if he was blown away when informed that it’s indeed season No. 13 for James.
James, with 13 seasons and two rings to his resume, still wants more out of the game. Namely championships. But at the same time, the way he is setting himself up to get there is by feeding the 23-year-old Irving.
As a five-year vet, there is so much more that Irving sees as his rightful bounty from basketball. James already suggested this season that Irving will win an MVP someday. Scott called him the most talented point guard he has ever coached -- and his former players include the likes of Jason Kidd and Chris Paul. And Bryant sounded like he was describing himself when detailing Irving’s game.
“He has a killer mentality,” Bryant said. “He can shoot the long ball. His midrange game is excellent. And he can finish at the rim. So, he has all the tools there. It’s just a matter of continuing to work and get into rhythm where he can start doing that on a consistent basis. But the way he played tonight, he can do this pretty much every night.”
Wednesday’s game got mildly competitive in the fourth quarter when Bryant broke out some of his old magic to score seven points in two minutes late in the quarter to bring the Lakers within eight after once trailing by 22. But Irving closed things out with eight fourth-quarter points of his own en route to 35 points.
It was a game-high total and a season-high total for Irving, more than James' 29 and more than doubling Bryant’s 17. While all the postgame cameras flooded Bryant and James to capture their embrace after the final buzzer, Irving and Bryant had a hug of their own that went comparatively unnoticed.
In Bryant’s final game against Jordan, he smoked him for 55 points, including 42 in the first half. Irving told ESPN.com that he was going for the same sort of statement game against Bryant. As much as it could come off as cutthroat, it’s just as much about reverence and respect, almost like a kid inviting his parents to his talent show competition because he wants them to be proud.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Irving said. “Going against your mentor, one of the guys that you want to prove something to every time you go out and play, there was definitely some added incentive going in there.”
And so, some of basketball’s brightest aligned for one night. A dimming star, a brilliant one and one just beginning to burn. All sharing the same sky. All connected as a constellation.