It’s true that two of the greatest basketball players of all time locked horns at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday night as LeBron James played host to Kobe Bryant on his home floor for the final time. Sure, to win an NBA championship over the last nine years you had to go through either Bryant or James, and it’s the game’s loss they never met in the Finals. However, I found myself oddly irked as the game rolled on listening to broadcasters and friends alike talk about these two men.
Towards the end of another Los Angeles Lakers (11-44) loss that saw Bryant shoot below 33 percent from the field and low-lighted by D’Angelo Russell getting pegged in the most unsavory of places for a man by a James bullet pass, I couldn’t help but think at just how different the story of these two’s shared time in the league should be told than what the common narratives are saying now — and have been for years.
Yes, even all the way up until Bryant’s Achilles tear in 2013, both James and Bryant were regularly compared and pitted against one another as the two of (if not) the best players on the planet by many analysts.. However, what most Los Angeles Lakers fans don’t want to admit (but it is undeniable) is that James was the better player during almost that entire shared stretch of greatness (2003-2013), and certainly towards the middle-to-end.
Bryant was older, slower and never quite had the leaping ability James did; yet found a way to grind his way to a level that afforded him such a comparison well beyond a time-frame that his body should’ve allowed. That speaks directly to Bryant’s insatiable desire to win and be the best.
James concurred in discussing what he admired about Bryant before Wednesday’s matchup. “His competitive nature,” James said to Tom Withers of the Associated Press. “A lot of guys might be bigger, taller or jump higher, but it’s something that’s in you that gets you to that level.”
While James is just now at the beginning stages of decline athletically, Kobe was already wearing down and focusing on expeditiously cranking out as many championships as he could before his window closed for much of the two’s shared stretch.
Meanwhile James’s window for championships was as wide open as a non-air conditioned home’s is on a steamy Georgia summer afternoon during that same time.
He was clearly the superior athlete and more consistently versatile player. Further, he’s always been the more effective communicator with his teammates, and has proven that he can get the best out of players that likely wouldn’t have seen an NBA floor elsewhere at times. James is notorious for taking much lesser teams deeper than Bryant could, but more surprisingly, further than they had any business going.
That’s a different type of great. Not better – or worse – just different. These are two completely different players of two different generations that just happened to catch each other, for a brief stint, at or near the heights of their respective games. Any other narrative is hogwash.
When asked about the rivalry that never occurred, Bryant didn’t express any regret, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
“I never looked to see what he was doing,” Bryant said. “I just felt like we were a completely different generation. I just missed that thing completely. Not like a Magic-Bird sort of thing. From the time he came into the league it was more helping him, giving him direction, advice.”
When pressed on specifically the lack of a Finals matchup between the two, Bryant was decisively apathetic:
“It didn’t matter to me,” Bryant insisted. “For the fans, it probably stinks because it would’ve been a great matchup. But from a players’ perspective, it doesn’t matter who you play. You just want to win the championship.”
For a player like Bryant that might be true, but James wasn’t so shy in admitting he had regrets the two never developed the historic rivalry their talents said they should have:
“We never had the matchup that everybody wanted, that we wanted,” James said.
Again, two totally different answers from two totally different players and men.
Neither ended up leading their team in scoring Wednesday night. Kyrie Irving led the Cavs by obliterating the abysmal Lakers defensive backcourt in scoring 35 points on 14-25 shooting, while Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson both scored eight or more points than Bryant while shooting a combined 20 percent better from the field than he for the Lakers.
Bryant finished with 17 points on 5-16 shooting while James continued to heat up both from downtown (3-6 on the night) and in his assist game as he notched another 11 dimes to go along with his 29 points on 12-22 shooting.
Long gone were the amazing feats of athleticism by both players in this game; one coasting for the playoffs, and the other ravaged by minutes and Father Time. What we were left with was an inevitable outcome and plenty of time to contemplate these two’s legacies.
In so doing, I recalled my grandfather watching James and Bryant play one another in 2010 and boisterously stating “it’s not even close,” when talking about how much better that James was than Bryant. Indeed, by that point James had displayed a near mastery of all five positions on the floor while soaring well above the rim on flamboyant dunks seemingly every night. While Bryant, the consummate professional, worked on refining his jump shot, footwork and found ways to remain competitive to those not watching with as keen of an eye. That said, he was obviously nowhere near the athlete or all-around player that James was.
The time where you could compare the two on an even plane as athletes and basketball players has already passed six years ago, and it’s nothing but a sheer testament to Bryant that he gutted his way to a couple more elite seasons after 2010. That puts us at a mutual shared window of elite greatness of 2003-2010, or just 35 percent of Bryant’s career.
Indeed, these were two legendary ships passing in the night.
One on a clear ascension, and the other achieving championships out of residual greatness, pure grit and stubbornness for that short window. They weren’t the two best of a generation, or even two guys that met each other at their peaks with equally competitive teams often. Not only was this not a rivalry, it was a definitive non-story altogether; a truth that surely broke the hearts of Nike executives around the world
While the generations may not have been the same, and some of the narratives clearly off — the respect between these two is very real as we witnessed Wednesday night when, engulfed by 20,000 fans showering both men with adoration, the two shared a powerful embrace:
“It was just a lot of mutual respect,” James said of the embrace. “Sometimes what is known doesn’t need to be said.”