Michael Jordan was among the mourners to pay tribute to his late friend Kobe Bryant at the powerful Staples Center memorial for the athlete on Monday, just under a month after his shocking death in a helicopter crash with daughter Gianna.
Taking the stage, the basketball legend, 57, told the gathered crowd — which included Bryant’s wife Vanessa Bryant, 37, and their daughters — “I’m grateful to be here to honor Gigi and celebrate the gift that Kobe gave us all.”
Continued Jordan, “What he accomplished as a basketball player, as a businessman and a storyteller and as a father. In the game of basketball, and life as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank. He left it all on the floor.”
“It may be a surprise to people that Kobe and I were very close friends,” the NBA star said. “He was like a little brother. Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between he and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe.”
Jordan noted that Bryant, 41, wanted “to be the best basketball player that he could be.”
And that had an effect on Jordan, he told the emotional crowd.
“As I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother that I could be,” he recalled, then joking, “To do that, you had to put up with the aggravation, the late-night calls or the dumb questions.”
“I took great pride as I got to know Kobe Bryant, that he was just trying to be a better person … we talked about business, we talked about family, we talked about everything, he was just trying to be a better person.”
There were moments of levity in Jordan’s speech, with him poking fun at his own infamous crying face meme.
As he wiped away tears, Jordan said, “Now he’s got me, I’ll have to look at another crying meme.”
The crowd laughed uproariously, and Jordan continued, “I told my wife I wasn’t gonna do this because I didn’t want to see that [meme] for the next three or four years.”
Tying it into Bryant’s personality, Jordan said, “He knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally, even though he’s being a pain in the ass … he can bring out the best in you, and he did that for me.”
Concluding his emotional speech, Jordan told the crowd, “When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died … those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from.”
“I promise you from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing I had a little brother that I tried to help in every way I could.”
After Bryant’s death in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash, Estee Portnoy, the manager and spokeswoman for Jordan released a statement on Twitter on behalf of the NBA legend.
“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing,” the statement began. “Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe – he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much.”
“He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force,” the statement continued. “Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply – and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.”
Jordan’s statement concluded, “Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to Vanessa, the Lakers organization, and basketball fans around the world.”
Both Jordan — who retired in 2003 — and Bryant have long been considered two of the most accomplished players to ever pick up a basketball. Until the day before his death, Bryant was the third-leading scorer in NBA history, but was surpassed by LeBron James.