MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — All these years, Kobe Bryant has been chasing Michael Jordan.
The bar doesn’t get any higher than that. And after Bryant passed Jordan for third on the NBA’s career scoring list in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 100-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night, he offered a glimpse into the relentless mentality it takes to run down a legend.
“I think the competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people when you peel back truly what’s inside of a person to compete and be at that high level,” Bryant said. “It scares a lot of people that are just comfortable being average.”
Bryant has been compared to Jordan for a long time, in part because he dared to chase him. Where Bryant is every bit Jordan’s equal is in the tenacity that has kept him going through a torn Achilles tendon, bone-on-bone friction in his knees and now the painful rebuilding of a proud franchise.
“His competitiveness drives him in the offseason to work to be able to play at the level he plays,” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. “His competitiveness during the games to dominate offensively and defensively and then his competitiveness of wanting to win. He’ll challenge teammates if need be and will do whatever it takes to try to get that edge.”
It’s the only way Bryant knows. And he learned by studying the best.
“I think when you look at Michael’s (Hall of Fame) speech,” Bryant said, referring to a speech in which Jordan cited those who he perceived to have gotten in his way over the years. “People really got a chance to see how he ticks and it scared a lot of people, right? But that’s just the reality of it. You can’t get to a supreme level without channeling the dark side a little bit.”
Bryant’s willingness to embrace the darkness has, in his own eyes, cast him as one of the league’s villains. It also likely ensures that his farewell tour, whenever that comes, will not be of the warm and fuzzy variety that New York Yankees star Derek Jeter enjoyed last season.
“Derek and I are different people,” Bryant said. “He hides it a lot better but I guarantee you our competitive spirit is exactly the same. He just hides it better or chooses to hide it. I don’t choose to hide it.”
Then again, maybe he overestimates the animosity out there. Maybe that’s another mind trick that he plays on himself to get him out of bed in the morning and to the gym for another workout.
When No. 24 stepped to the free-throw line midway through the second quarter on Sunday night — with 5:24 remaining and 24 seconds on the shot clock, to be exact — needing both shots to move past Jordan, a Lakers-heavy crowd at Target Center stood and serenaded him. Cell phone flashes flickered as the first and second shots swished through and the Timberwolves stopped the game, with owner Glen Taylor presenting Bryant the game ball to a thunderous ovation.
“I’m used to being the villain, man,” Bryant said with a sheepish smile. “To have moments like that, when you’re not expecting a hug and you get a hug, this feels pretty damn good.”
Once it was finally over, the weight lifted and Bryant found another gear against a young Timberwolves team that includes 19-year-olds Andrew Wiggins — the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft — and Zach LaVine, who wears No. 8 in honor of Bryant.
He finished the night with 26 points, including a dagger of a 3-pointer over Wiggins’ outstretched hand with just over a minute to play that helped seal the win.
“I witnessed greatness tonight,” a star-struck Wiggins said. “A living legend passed Michael Jordan, who everyone thinks is the best player of all-time. That’s a big accomplishment. I’m glad I was there to witness it.”
Wiggins was 1 when a wide-eyed Bryant entered the league in 1996, and that wasn’t lost on him in the afterglow on Sunday night.
“It was a strange feeling,” Bryant said. “I remember being Andrew Wiggins. I remember playing against Michael my first year. To be here tonight and playing against him and seeing the baby face and the little footwork and little technique things that he’s going to be much, much sharper at as time goes on. It was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool.”
Now that Bryant has bumped Jordan from the scoring podium, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928) are in front of him.
Even if he remains in third place, which appears likely, it won’t really matter. Vaulting over Jordan, whose Jumpman logo is as synonymous with the NBA as Jerry West’s silhouette, is its own reward.
Maybe that’s why the insatiable Bryant wore the unfamiliar smile of satisfaction on Sunday night. He’s been trying for almost two decades. And now he can finally say he’s beaten Jordan at something.
“It has a certain finality to it,” he said. “When moments like this come around, you’re really overjoyed by it. At the same time, you know the end is pretty near, which is fine, too.”
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