Jordan vs. Kobe: How the 1998 All-Star Game became the NBA’s self-fulfilling prophecy

Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Madison Square Garden. February 8, 1998.

Do you like a good NBA conspiracy theory? Then boy oh boy, have I got one for you.

Let’s go back to the fall of 1997. For a league that had just enjoyed one of its most memorable NBA Finals ever and its second best TV rating since the NBA-ABA merger, life was rocky. The league's signature team was in disarray. Imagine if the 2018 Warriors had the drama and discord of the 2018 Cavs, and you can picture what the 1998 Bulls looked like.

What do I mean by “drama and discord”? Well, 11 days after Scottie Pippen sealed championship #5 for the Bulls with a steal for the ages, Jerry Krause tried to trade him.

That fell through in part because Michael Jordan put his foot down. But if Jordan was running the show, it was news to him. In October, during the preseason, a reporter asked Jordan if he would try to pressure Jerry Reinsdorf into re-signing Phil Jackson, whose contract (along with MJ’s and Pippen’s) expired after the 1998 season.

“You see how Jerry Reinsdorf operates,” Jordan said. “My influence doesn’t have anything to do with his decision-making.”

And if Jackson didn’t return?

“I would quit,” Jordan said.

On that particular day, Rodman remained without a contract. Pippen was debating whether to have toe surgery. The name of Iowa State University head basketball coach Tim Floyd was circulating as the probable replacement for Jackson. Krause and Jackson were publicly feuding. Jordan was angry with Rodman and possibly Pippen, who went through with the surgery, costing him the season’s first 35 games. Pippen was angry with Krause and Reinsdorf. Jackson looked like he was in a lame-duck season, meaning Jordan was too.

This was the most popular team in sports.

At the same time, the league itself looked like a lame-duck season. A lockout loomed at the end of 1997-98, with commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Russ Granik openly discussing the work stoppage as “something we’re going to have to consider.”

 The Daily Spectrum, Utah, Sep. 20, 1997

The Daily Spectrum, Utah, Sep. 20, 1997

Then on December 1 sprang the wild card: an NBA player choked his coach.

This was the famous Latrell Sprewell - P.J. Carlesimo encounter, an incident so upsetting to league order that the league suspended Sprewell for the remainder of the season — 68 games. An Associated Press story at the end of the calendar year summed up the league’s troubles:

HEADLINE: NBA ‘97 — from unbeaten Bulls to Sprewell
SUBHEAD: A seemingly stable league experiences growing pains

On Dec. 31, 1997, the Bulls were 20-10, but struggling, and were coming off a loss in Minnesota the day before caused in part by Jordan’s panic at a hoax phone call to the stadium claiming that MJ’s mother was in the hospital. Pippen had not yet played. John Stockton was just back from injury. Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal were injured.

The old guard was crumbling and you couldn’t even say “wait till next year.”

***

The young guard was a dunk champ gunning for 6th Man of the Year, and on Dec. 17, 1997, he gave the world a show. I would say “Kobe Bryant and the Lakers came to Chicago,” but you tend not to say “Player X and his team” when Player X comes off the bench.

This is what the stats of the 18-5 Lakers looked like when they took the United Center floor against the 14-9 Bulls:

  • Shaquille O’Neal — 8 games, (8 starts), 35.6 min., 24.5 pts (injured)
  • Eddie Jones — 23 games, (23 starts), 36.3 min., 19.0 pts
  • Kobe Bryant — 20 games, (0 starts), 26.0 min., 17.4 pts
  • Nick Van Exel — 23 games, (23 starts), 32.6 min., 15.5 pts
  • Elden Campbell — 22 games (16 starts), 28.3 min., 14.8 pts
  • Rick Fox —  23 games, (23 starts), 30.7 min., 11.2 pts
  • Robert Horry — 21 games, (21 starts), 32.2 min., 7.9 pts
  • Derek Fisher — 23 games, (0 starts), 16.0 min., 4.9 pts

Bryant was not a starter, but he was a star. He was the league’s reigning dunk champ and a smash hit in commercials. He offered a G-rated counter to the league’s best young scoring guard, fellow second-year player Allen Iverson of the 76ers, who the day of that Bulls-Lakers game was 8th in the NBA in scoring yet made news for issuing an apology to his head coach for missing practice a few days prior, and serving a one-game team suspension.

 Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Bryant was a kid-friendly dunker. He was the latest in a string of players dubbed the “Next Michael Jordan,” but unlike the others his anointment made sense from a basketball standpoint. They had similar bodies and similar games. The hype wasn’t just in Los Angeles, which was to be expected. On the day that the Lakers came to Chicago, the Tribune sports section ran a front-page spread called “Kobe Bryant: The Air apparent?”

In his column, Sam Smith wrote that Kobe “may be the closest talent to Jordan to come into the NBA in the last decade.” Lakers GM Jerry West called Kobe “simply the best prospect we ever worked out,” while Pacers GM Donnie Walsh said that Kobe “does something every game I see him that’s Michael Jordan stuff.”

The sports section ran statistical comparisons between Kobe and Jordan as rookies and in that season, and on the inside of the paper named Kobe the “Player To Watch,” writing:

“Dare we say that the teen sensation is beginning to look like a precocious Michael Jordan?”

Remember: they were talking about a 2nd-year, 19-year-old backup.

With Shaq out and starting guards Jones and Van Exel combining against the Bulls for 14 points on six of 25 shooting, Kobe took control: 12-20 off the bench, shooting 3-5 from three and 6-9 from the line for a team- and career-high 33 points. Jordan had 36. The Bulls won by 21.

In the fourth quarter, with the Bulls comfortably ahead, Jordan asked Jackson to be put back into the game. He wanted to guard Kobe. It wouldn’t be the last time.

***

On Dec. 23, one week after the Jordan-Bryant matchup, the first results in the All-Star voting came out. And this is where we get to our conspiracy.

Here were the West guards:

  1. Gary Payton, Seattle: 89,262
  2. Eddie Jones, L.A. Lakers: 78,138
  3. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers: 68,163
  4. Stephon Marbury, Minnesota: 64,445
  5. Jason Kidd, Phoenix: 54,338
  6. Nick Van Exel, L.A. Lakers: 50,160
  7. John Stockton, Utah: 36,585
  8. Clyde Drexler, Houston: 31,952

Here were the guards on Dec. 31:

  1. Payton: 106,536
  2. Jones: 93,674
  3. Bryant: 82,591
  4. Marbury: 73,962
  5. Kidd: 66,030

On Jan. 8, 1998, Kobe was down to 4th:

  1. Payton: 131,487
  2. Jones: 98,381
  3. Marbury: 90,757
  4. Bryant: 87,484
  5. Kidd: 84,553

On Jan. 18, as reported by the L.A. Times, Bryant was down to 5th, with Marbury now starting opposite Payton and Jones 3rd. (Vote totals weren’t published, unfortunately, nor was the 4th place guard.)

And then, on Jan. 22, seemingly out of nowhere, with no significant game to point to that would indicate a leap, he was 2nd.

 Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Four days later, the voting was over.

  1. Payton: 555,715
  2. Bryant: 395,686
  3. Stockton: 344,259
  4. Marbury: 331,749
  5. Kidd: 305,834
  6. Jones: 300,658
  7. Drexler: 238,150
  8. Van Exel: 232,274
 Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Just like that, Kobe Bryant was an All-Star starter at age 19, the youngest starter in the game’s history. He was third on his team in scoring with 17.3 points per game, and had come off the bench in all 38 games he’d played. Among his fellow players who had yet to start a game, he was the NBA’s leading scorer.

“It was a goal of mine,” Kobe said after the voting was finished. “Now that it has become reality, it’s more gratifying than anything.”

 Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

For what it’s worth, I did not set out to write a conspiracy story. I just wanted to write a story about the impact that the ‘98 All-Star Game had on the league in the two decades to follow due to the Jordan vs. Kobe storyline. And we’ll get to that.

But when I started looking at the vote totals and how they progressed, and added that to what we know about how the NBA under David Stern manipulated events to create outcomes that were favorable to the league, I started to wonder.

So I’ll ask point-blank: did the NBA fix the voting to push Kobe Bryant into the starting lineup and hence the All-Star Game, since he obviously would not have been selected by the coaches? Let’s look at both sides.
 

REASONS IT MIGHT NOT BE TRUE

1. Even at 19, Kobe was hugely popular, so him snagging a starting spot in a popularity contest is not impossible. And since we don’t know how the vote totals are counted, perhaps there is a logical explanation for the drop from 3rd to 5th and then the rise from 5th to 2nd.

2. He was averaging 17 points per game at the time, and had dropped 33 on the Bulls on Dec. 17, so he was clearly talented and was a future star. If the lockout hadn’t wiped out the ‘99 All-Star Game, Kobe almost certainly would have made it even as a coach selection.

3. Gary Payton was the runaway leading vote-getter among West guards, but the competition was open after that. Other than Kobe, the guys who at various points either held the #2 spot or fought for it were Eddie Jones, Stephon Marbury, John Stockton, and Jason Kidd. Good players, but nobody who was truly crushing it in either play or popularity.

4. Part of my reasoning for why it might be true is that the voting numbers look weird, but again, I've never looked closely at the week-by-week totals, so perhaps this is just how it goes sometimes. Additionally, I can only think of three instances in which the league might have been inclined to fix the voting, and in each case it went the way that might not be best for the league:

● 1992, Magic Johnson (He was voted a starter despite being retired following his HIV announcement. I could see this argued either way: that either the league thought it would be good for him to play so that everyone could get used to seeing him on the court in preparation for the Olympics, or that the league would NOT want him to play because he was A. retired, and B. had HIV.)

● 2003, Michael Jordan (He was not voted a starter, despite everyone pretty much knowing that it would be his final All-Star Game. The coaches rightfully selected him to come off the bench, and then the public basically bullied the East starters into relinquishing a starting spot, which Vince Carter did.)

● 2004, LeBron James (You could argue that the league would want its “new” future to start in his rookie year, especially with Kobe going through his rape case. But LeBron finished 4th among East guards and was not selected by the coaches.)

REASONS IT MIGHT BE TRUE

1. We know that the NBA is proactive in its efforts to control its outcomes, and considering that the prevailing wisdom at the time was that 1998 would be MJ's final All-Star Game, adding one more piece of the league's future to the game in a marquee position seems like something the league would manipulate.

And to get Kobe in, they would have had to manipulate it. Among the top eight vote-getters for Western guards, Kobe was 5th in scoring upon the announcement of the starters. Since scoring was just about all he did at the time, it’s unlikely that the coaches would have selected him.

  • Gary Payton — 19.4 pts, 5.0 reb, 8.8 ast (42 games, 42 starts)
  • Clyde Drexler — 19.4 pts, 4.9 reb, 5.8 ast (33 games, 33 starts)
  • Stephon Marbury — 18.5 pts, 2.8 reb, 8.3 ast (40 games, 39 starts)
  • Eddie Jones — 18.2 pts, 3.6 reb, 3.0 ast (41 games, 41 starts)
  • Kobe Bryant — 17.3 pts, 3.2 reb, 2.3 ast (38 games, 0 starts)
  • Nick Van Exel — 15.5 pts, 3.4 reb, 7.6 ast (40 games, 40 starts)
  • John Stockton — 12.6 pts, 2.6 reb, 8.1 ast (22 games, 22 starts)
  • Jason Kidd — 10.2 pts, 6.4 reb, 9.1 ast (39 games, 39 starts)
 Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

2. Let's say for a second that Kobe was elected fair and square. The league showed its interest in showcasing the "old vs. new" battle between Jordan and Kobe by announcing Kobe last among West starters. There was no real reason to do this other than setting up the parallel between Kobe and Jordan, who was announced last for the East (and last overall).

Kobe was clearly the low man on the West starter totem — it would have made much more sense to save that last announcement spot for Karl Malone (reigning MVP) or Shaq (arguably the game's biggest star after Mike).

Now, you might say, "Yeah, but because Jordan was announced last, they had to announce a West guard last." First of all, no they don't. It's an All-Star Game. No one would blink if they announced Malone last for the West, considering he was the league MVP and the best player on the reigning West champs.

But if you need to announce a guard last, you've got Gary Payton, who was the leading vote-getter among West guards by more than 160,000 votes, was in his 5th All-Star Game, was a former DPOY and Finals contestant, etc. Announcing KG last for the West under the idea of “He’s the future” would have made sense too.

3. Going along with the league's interest in promoting "MJ vs. Kobe," the broadcast focused heavily on that connection. They interviewed Kobe four times:

Kobe was constantly asked about Mike, and was asked directly if this game was the "passing of the torch. And Mike was asked about Kobe in both a 1st half interview and at halftime.

The players knew about the Jordan-Kobe hype. Here's Reggie Miller that day:

"I kind of looked over at Jordan and he had this look in his eye. He was like, 'You're right, they are trying to plug this as Kobe going after Michael.' We all took that personal."

Or David Robinson:

"I think there was a little too much of that stuff (i.e. talk about Kobe vs. Mike). It's hard. Some of us mid-generation guys, we're all about trying to win the game and aren't into that one-on-one kind of deal."

4. The league already had KG, Penny, and Grant Hill in the starting lineup, and I'll bet they had a good sense that the coaches would pick the rookie Tim Duncan for the West bench, which did indeed happen.

But they may have also known that...

...the league was headed toward a 1999 lockout, and that said lockout might even knock out the 1999 All-Star Game, which it did.

...the Bulls were really heading toward a breakup after 1998.

So David Stern might have wanted to highlight one more young player on a national stage to give fans something to be excited about when the lockout ended and the Bulls were no longer a factor.

5. Lastly, and most significantly, Kobe had a sudden surge of votes down the stretch, moving from 5th among West guards on Jan. 18 to 2nd on Jan. 22. (Curiously, or not, Shaq also had a sudden surge. He trailed David Robinson for the entirety of January, and then when the final vote totals were announced, he was the winner.)

Like I said, since we don’t know how the votes are counted, or when, this could be coincidental. But it stood out to me and I wanted to share it.

***

Okay, here’s why this doesn’t matter: Kobe lived up to the hype! He was awesome in this game. He scored his first points on an early jumper, dazzled the crowd with an alley-oop from Kevin Garnett and an alley-oop to Kevin Garnett, had announcer Isiah Thomas talking breathlessly about Kobe delivering “the oohs and the ahs,” and never for one moment looked like a 19-year-old. He led the West with 18 points without playing the 4th quarter. Only Jordan scored more points that day. He had 23 and won the game’s MVP award.

In other words, if the NBA did in fact fix the voting to promote a young star as the next Jordan, they picked the right young star. By 1999, Kobe was a legit All-Star, had the game been held. By 2000, he was the 2nd best player on an NBA championship team and 1st team all-defense. By 2001 he was a top-10 MVP candidate. By 2002 he was top-5.

And the league was right about the impact that the ‘98 game would have on our memory of both Jordan and an entire era. The Bulls did indeed win another championship and proceed to break apart piece-by-piece. The league owners did indeed lock out the players, shortening the 1999 season to 50 games. The lockout did indeed knock out the ‘99 All-Star Game.

By 2000, several of the biggest stars of the Dream Team era who were All-Stars in 1997 were either out of the league (Drexler) or no longer among the league’s best (Olajuwon, Pippen, Ewing, Barkley). But the impact of that loss was stymied by the promotion of new stars, most notably Kobe, whose 1998 All-Star Game start served as a bridge from the final MJ-as-a-Bull All-Star Game to the first post-MJ All Star Game.

If Kobe hadn’t made the team in ‘98, he would be yet another new face in the game, along with Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. Instead, he, Hill, Garnett, and Duncan helped fans in 2000 feel the continuity from 1998 to this new era of the NBA.

By 2000, from a marketing standpoint, the league was on board with Kobe Bryant, NBA Superstar. By 2002, his production fully matched his hype. Even when he was not the league’s best player, he was always one of its marquee faces, and remained one until his final NBA game.

But on that day in 1998, in the building MJ called “the Mecca,” Kobe would have to wait.

“I was trying to fend him off as much as I could,” an ill Jordan said after winning the game’s MVP following a bout with, once again, the flu. “He came at me pretty early, which I would too if I was him. If I see someone that’s sick, or whatever, you have got to attack him. He attacked.”

I can just see Jordan smiling as he delivered this next line.

“You know? I like his attitude.”

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Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of “Our President” about Barack Obama supporters and “How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.

All clips taken from Newspapers.com