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.”
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