“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died.”

 a note from the author

This was an essay I wrote for school in the Spring 2023 semester. The goal of the assignment was to pick a speech and analyze it.

Michael Jordan’s heartfelt speech at Kobe Bryant’s memorial honored the late star’s life and legacy, while also providing comfort and solace to others mourning Kobe’s tragic and unexpected passing. Through sharing his own insight, emotion, and experiences with Kobe, Jordan builds an effective argument regarding the importance of passion and living in the moment. His speech is a powerful tribute to Bryant and serves to encourage the audience to emulate the fallen icon’s tireless work ethic and spirit. Jordan effectively uses rhetorical techniques and appeals to accomplish his purpose of eulogizing his “little brother” and inspiring anyone listening.

Michael Jordan is a legend, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. Six-time NBA champion, four-time olympic gold medalist, and five-time league MVP are just a select few of his many accolades. During his career he reached a level of global recognition and fame that almost no other athlete has ever garnered. Yet, Jordan has addressed the public only a handful of times since his (final) retirement in 2003. His infrequent public appearances make this particular eulogy all the more special. While his fellow NBA legends and celebrities in attendance wish they were hearing from him on a better occasion, Jordan’s tribute to Kobe is still highly anticipated. In addition to Kobe’s friends, family, and fans in the live audience, the broader basketball community all around the world tune in online to hear Jordan pay homage to Kobe.

Jordan appeals to ethos to build trust with the audience and establish himself as a credible source on Kobe’s life and character. While Jordan has previously solidified his status within basketball many times over, this speech is about honoring Kobe and the legacy that he left behind. Jordan emphasizes the extent of his relationship with Kobe to build credibility within this new context. He recounts that “Kobe used to call me, text me, 11:30, 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning. Talking about post up moves, footwork, and sometimes, the triangle.” Kobe was one of the world’s most famous and successful athletes: there are very few people that he’s calling for advice, especially at 3 AM. By telling this story, Jordan establishes his role as Kobe’s mentor. He can now give the unique perspective of someone that Kobe looked up to, someone who can attest to Kobe’s desire to improve, his mindset, and ultimately his accomplishments. Viewing Kobe from the lens of a proud mentor makes for a powerful eulogy and allows Jordan to share memories that many in the audience are not familiar with. Later in his speech, Jordan mentions his own family, saying “I have a daughter who is thirty, I just became a grandparent. And I have two twins at six.” This draws a congratulatory applause from the crowd but also further establishes Jordan’s credibility, this time as a parent. Now from his view as a father, Jordan effectively commemorates Kobe’s commitment to family life, saying “I am inspired by what he has done and what he has shared with Vanessa and what he’s shared with his kids.” Jordan humbly uses ethos to establish himself as Kobe’s mentor and someone that can personally attest to his success on and off the basketball court.

Jordan’s use of appeals to pathos are the most noticeable of the rhetorical devices that he employs throughout his speech. And how could they not be? The passing of Kobe, his daughter, and the other victims in the helicopter crash was a devastating tragedy. The entire basketball community is reeling from the loss of a beloved icon. In response, Jordan uses an appropriate mix of heavy emotion and light humor to deeply connect with and draw emotion from the audience. Throughout his speech, Jordan fights through tears, like many in attendance. But as he continues, he smiles, telling stories that bring others to also smile through their own pain. He uses a few timely self-deprecating jokes, mentioning a conversation he and Kobe had about baseball, Jordan’s unsuccessful venture into a new sport. However, one of the most memorable moments of the entire memorial was Jordan, fighting tears, saying “now I’ll have to look at another crying meme for the next…” His words trail off as the crowd erupts in laughter and applause, alleviating the heavy emotional tension. In the audience, fans, Stephen Curry, and even Kobe’s wife Vanessa all share a smile. With this joke, Jordan is referencing his last memorable public speech, where he teared up while being inducted to the basketball hall of fame. Pictures of Jordan crying became a meme in sports culture for years. So amidst these heavy emotions, Jordan turns something embarrassing for him into a joke that becomes a pivotal moment in the speech. He ends his humorous appeal by turning the focus back to Kobe: “but that is what Kobe Bryant does to me. I’m pretty sure Vanessa and his friends could all say the same thing, he knows how to get to you in a way that affects you personally.” Jordan’s joke, followed by his touching reflection is a whirlwind of emotions powerful enough to deeply impact the audience.

Jordan delivering his speech.

Another appeal to pathos and a key point throughout his speech is Jordan’s description of Kobe Bryant as his “little brother.” His use of familial language in comparing his bond to Kobe as a brotherhood deeply resonates with the audience, further indicating the impact that Kobe had on him. One of Jordan’s most powerful appeals is when he relates to the audience through family, saying “all of us have brothers and sisters, little brothers, little sisters who, for whatever reason, always tend to get in your stuff, your closet, your shoes, everything. It was a nuisance. But that nuisance turned into love over a period of time. Just because of the admiration they have for you as big brothers or big sisters. The questions, the wanting to know every little detail about the life they were about to embark on.” This appeal draws multiple results. It relates to those who have siblings (literal or figurative), it uses some humor to diffuse the crowd’s grief (his emphasis on “nuisance” drew a laugh), and most importantly communicates Jordan’s love for Kobe and the sense of loss he feels at his passing. Jordan’s repetition of “little brother” and “big brother” carries through the speech and makes an emotional impact on anyone listening. Jordan uses this appeal to effectively communicate Kobe’s impact on him, saying “what Kobe Bryant was to me was the inspiration that somebody truly cared about the way I played the game or the way that he wanted to play the game. He wanted to be the best basketball player he could be. And as I got to know him, I wanted to be the best big brother I could be.” Jordan’s use of familial language to illustrate the brotherhood he and Kobe shared is one of the most potent and effective appeals in his speech.

Kobe Bryant

Although Jordan’s speech is an emotional eulogy, he still uses subtle elements that appeal to logos and reason. Throughout, he personally attests to Kobe’s character, using anecdotes as evidence. Jordan speaks about visiting Phil Jackson, his former and Kobe’s current (at the time) coach. “I saw Phil Jackson in 1999… and I walk in and Kobe’s sitting there. And I’m in a suit. The first thing Kobe said: ‘Did you bring your shoes?’” This small recount from Jordan is a specific example of the competitive spirit Kobe had that Jordan admired him for. Jordan uses this same technique again to showcase Kobe’s dedication as a father: “I remember a couple of months ago he sends me a text and he said ‘I’m trying to teach my daughter some moves…what were you thinking about as you were trying to work on your moves?’” By telling this story, Jordan gives clear evidence that proves Kobe’s commitment to family. It’s one thing to say he was a great father; Jordan takes it a step further by showing he was a great father. Many of the quick anecdotes Jordan shares throughout his speech not only provide specific instances of Kobe’s high character, but also inspire the audience by giving clear evidence of what Kobe stood for. Jordan uses logos successfully throughout his speech, leaving the audience with no questions about the kind of athlete, man, and father Kobe was.

Jordan both begins and ends his speech by effectively appealing to kairos, emphasizing the urgency and importance of living in the present moment. In Jordan’s opening remarks he says, “in the game of basketball, in life, as a parent, Kobe left nothing in the tank. He left it all on the floor.” He repeats this sentiment throughout his speech, saying “Kobe gave every last ounce of himself to whatever he was doing.” Referencing Kobe’s unrelenting spirit and attitude towards life, Jordan calls on the audience to take inspiration from Kobe’s example and live with the same intensity. Finally, Jordan closes his speech with a specific call to action. “Kobe never left anything on the court. And I think that’s what he would want us to do. No one knows how much time we have. That is why we must live in the moment, we must enjoy the moment, we must reach, and see, and spend as much time as we can with our families and friends and the people that we absolutely love.” Jordan’s dual appeal to kairos is so powerful because it speaks to both what Kobe would have wanted and how to achieve it. Jordan emphasizes Kobe’s all-out approach to life throughout the speech, inspiring the audience to embody this same spirit. He further emphasizes the urgency of his message by reminding the audience that no one knows how much time they have, reinforcing the importance of making the most of every moment. Jordan’s specific call to action encourages the audience to be present in the moment and spend time with loved ones, making his message memorable as well as actionable. Ultimately, Jordan’s use of kairos in his speech honors Kobe’s memory while also inspiring and motivating the audience to live their lives to the fullest.

Throughout his speech Jordan appeals to ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos to not only pay homage, but motivate the audience to live with the same passion for life as Kobe. Jordan left all those listening with an inspiring call to action, while also easing their grief through a mix of emotional display and humor. He establishes himself as a credible source on Kobe’s life and provides clear evidence to how Kobe succeeded on and off the court. While all of these appeals are effective in their own right, Jordan’s appeals to pathos stand out the most. He’s giving a eulogy after all. Jordan’s emotional appeals are strong and turn the horrible tragedy of Kobe’s death into a celebration of his life, while inspiring the audience at the same time. He displays his own pain while speaking through tears, yet still finds a way to use timely humor to ease the emotions of the crowd. And while establishing credibility, providing evidence, and creating urgency serves Jordan well throughout his speech, it wouldn’t be the touching eulogy that it is without his heartfelt appeals to pathos. In conclusion, Michael Jordan delivers a powerful and impactful speech at Kobe Bryant’s memorial service that effectively utilizes rhetorical appeals to craft an emotional and touching tribute to the late Laker legend.

(Jordan, 2020)



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