The last communication between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant

ESPN Illustration

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 11, 2021.

He still has the final text message saved on his phone.

Michael Jordan retrieves it from time to time, even though it refreshes his grief, triggers the urge to wonder all over again, as so many others have, "Why?"

Almost sixteen months after the death of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six other companions as well as the pilot in a helicopter crash, it remains agonizing to process. Jordan, who was Kobe's mentor, confidant and friend, has been mulling over how to put Bryant's life into context because he will be inducting him into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday. It is a responsibility that comes with a mix of distinction and dread.

Jordan still can't speak of Kobe without a little hitch in his voice, a catch of emotion that hasn't subsided since he spoke at Bryant's memorial service last February and openly wept over the loss of his "little brother." As the tears streamed down his face, Jordan joked about creating a new Jordan crying meme for the thirsty social media throngs.

"I told my wife I wouldn't do this, because I didn't want to see it for the next three or four years," Jordan said on that day. "This is what Kobe Bryant does to me. He knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally ... even if he is a pain in the ass."

Time has passed, but the grief lingers, simmering on the surface. Jordan acknowledges that he had some concerns about how he would maintain his composure during the induction ceremony.

"I was thinking, at first, I might be a little somewhat nervous about it, but then I realized I'm not going to be nervous about showing emotions for someone I absolutely loved," Jordan says. "That's the humanistic side of me -- people tend to forget I do have one."

It is always heart-wrenching when people die young. The crash claimed the lives of three teenagers and young parents, all of whom left families behind. Bryant, just 41 years old, had settled comfortably into his basketball retirement, Jordan says, focusing on spending time with his wife, Vanessa, his four daughters and a burgeoning portfolio of literary, entertainment, coaching and basketball-related business ventures.

"He was just so happy," Jordan says. "He was doing so well."

The final text message, dated Dec. 8, 2019, indicates as much. Kobe sent it to Jordan just after noon, 12:18 p.m. PT.