On Sept. 11, 2009, Michael Jordan took the stage at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He talked for more than 23 minutes, starting out in tears while reflecting on his career. That brief glimpse of an emotional Jordan, eyes red, tear-stained cheeks, would become a viral meme. But despite those tears, the speech wasn’t particularly moving. It was harsh and cold, with Jordan using what should’ve been a celebratory moment to settle a few scores.
Jordan called out the high school coach who cut him and the guy who beat him for the final spot on the team. He brought up the NBA vets who froze him out in his first All-Star game, two of whom were in the audience. He said former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause wasn’t invited to the ceremony, a slight he punctuated by going on a diatribe about how organizations don’t win championships and that great players like him do—a twist on Krause’s earlier quote that suggested the reverse. Jordan even made a cringeworthy mention of his three children, saying he felt sorry for them because they had to live in his shadow.
In all, it was a perfect distillation of the competitive ethos that made Jordan one of the greatest basketball players ever, if not the greatest—and, in retirement, a distant and unsympathetic figure. On the court, he never failed to meet the moment. On the stage, he couldn’t say what needed to be said.
“Jordan spoke from the heart,” ESPN’s J.A. Adande wrote of that night in Springfield. “The thing is, his heart’s as cold as liquid nitrogen.”
Compare that unsentimental sequence of events with our most recent acquaintance with Jordan’s tear-streaked face, which returned Monday in an otherwise—and appropriately—bleak memorial service for Kobe and Gigi Bryant. This time, MJ couldn’t pass up the shot, even if it came at his own expense.
“I’ll have to look at another crying meme,” Jordan said, pausing to let the laughter and cheers wash over him. “I told my wife that I wasn’t going to do this because I didn’t want to see it for the next three or four years.”
Jordan turning himself into a punchline is damn near unprecedented, and would’ve seemed unthinkable in 2009. Maybe he has always possessed the capacity for tenderness and the ability to laugh at himself—but there was precious little evidence of it prior to Monday.
Jordan was the comic relief on a day when thousands filed into Los Angeles’ Staples Center for a somber spectacle that, as UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma aptly noted, was also “the greatest collection of talent I’ve ever been around.” The event opened with Beyoncé’s lilting vocal tribute, and Jimmy Kimmel emceed. Snoop Dogg was there. So was Alicia Keys and Spike Lee. Bill Russell was, too, as were several generations of Lakers royalty from Elgin Baylor to Magic Johnson to LeBron James.
Vanessa Bryant started things off with a moving tribute. Other speakers—WNBA great Diana Taurasi, Auriemma, and current women’s college star Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon—spoke of Kobe and Gigi’s shared passion for basketball. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, once Kobe’s agent, talked of his friend’s parental devotion. Shaquille O’Neal hinted at the complexity of his pairing with Kobe, a partnership that produced three NBA titles but still fell short of how many they felt they should have won.
But it was the warm and effusive GOAT who stole the show. Jordan talked affectionately about Bryant in a way we’d never heard him speak of his peers, coaches, or former teammates.
“Maybe it surprised people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” Jordan told the crowd. “But we were very close friends. Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother.”
Soon, it was clear why this particular task fell to Jordan: Kobe, in his playing days, had mirrored the older Jordan to the point where their identities were forever linked—from their footwork to their speech patterns to the reverence they earned from their peers.
In retirement, Bryant developed a knack for talking about his drive and work habits and on-court greatness in ways that seemed inspiring, something Jordan had long seemed unwilling or incapable of doing. In that way, Bryant became their—and the game’s—emissary.
“Forget about the endorsements, forget about the rings for a second, let’s forget about ballet movements and all this other shit. Let’s forget about that,” Bryant told Bleacher Report in 2017. “The technique is what’s most important. Because that is what’s actually timeless, that the next generation can study and carry on and then pass on to the one after that.”
Bryant carefully crafted this workaholic image and eventually sold it, burnishing his own legend in the Oscar-winning animated short Dear Basketball in 2017.*
This was beyond Jordan. He’d rather challenge one of the players on his team to a one-on-one. He’d disappoint a gym full of children if someone could stoke his competitive streak. This attitude was later captured in a different meme, one that didn’t go viral. Jordan seemed fine leaving the proselytizing to the kid.
But Monday, surrounded by some of the game’s greats, it was only Jordan who could shed light on the dark corners of their competitive hearts.
“As we grew up in life [we] rarely have friends that we can have conversations like that,” Jordan explained of his bond with Bryant. “Well, it’s even rarer when you can go up against adversaries and have conversations like that.”
This was a Jordan I hadn’t seen before: unscripted, reflective, and forlorn. He has been retired 17 years and rarely, if ever, made the sort of public statement that did anything other than check a few boxes, disappearing into the owner’s box of the Charlotte Hornets.
Back in the spotlight Monday, he recalled a meeting in coach Phil Jackson’s office in Los Angeles about 20 years ago.
“I walk in and Kobe’s sitting there,” Jordan said. “I’m in a suit, and the first thing Kobe said, ‘Did you bring your shoes?’ No, I wasn’t thinking about playing.”
He also told a story of getting a late-night text from Kobe a couple months ago. “He said: ‘I’m trying to teach my daughter some moves. And I don’t know what I was thinking, or what I was working on, but what were you thinking about when you were growing up trying to work on your moves?’ I said, ‘What age?’ He says ‘12.’ I said, ‘12, I was trying to play baseball.’ ”
It was genuine and funny and endearing—the kind of anecdote that you could imagine Kobe Bryant telling to win over a crowd. Bryant became an all-time great by imitating Jordan. Watching that speech on Monday, I couldn’t help thinking that Jordan had learned a thing or two from Kobe too.
Listen to this episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, about Kobe Bryant, in the player below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Correction, Feb. 25, 2020: This piece originally misstated the year when Dear Basketball was released. It was 2017, not 2018.