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The Ballad of Kobe and LeBron

The NBA’s two greatest forces since Jordan weren’t exactly rivals or best friends, but they eventually forged a brotherhood. For years, James fought for Bryant’s respect. Now, he’s determined to carry on his legacy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’m Not Ready but here I go” is how LeBron James began the Instagram post, and man, if that isn’t every goddamn one of us right now. The Lakers will return to the court at Staples Center on Friday, welcoming the Trail Blazers to Los Angeles for their first game since the shocking, horrifying death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Sunday. LeBron James will play basketball for the first time since the tragedy, which came just one day after he passed Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. That night, the two legends spoke on the phone for what would be the final time.

“It’s just too much. It’s too much. The story is too much,” James told reporters in Philadelphia last Saturday after moving ahead of Bryant in the record book but before the tragedy. “It’s surreal. It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life.”

James was talking about the good things: all the opportunities that paved the way to this latest milestone, and the chance not only to achieve it in the Lakers uniform that Bryant wore with distinction for two decades, but to do it in Kobe’s hometown. Sometimes the universe puts other things in your life, too. Right now, it has put something dark and daunting in LeBron’s, impossible to manage but unavoidable all the same: the need to find a new normal for himself, and a way to carry on, to keep “continuing to move the game forward,” as Kobe put it in his final tweet.

In the moment, it was a compliment, a show of respect. Now, those words—the last ones Bryant would ever share in public—read more like a charge, an assignment of responsibility punctuating a relationship that spanned nearly 20 years and defined two eras of NBA basketball, even if it never quite found the form that basketball fans always hoped it would.

It’s easy to forget now, with LeBron having long since surpassed Kobe as a player in the estimation of most of the basketball-watching world. In the early years of this century, though, LeBron was like the rest of us—a fan watching, awestruck, as Bryant became the first guard ever to make the leap from taking his SATs to taking the court at the highest level of professional basketball.

“It’s another guy that I looked up to when I was in grade school and high school,” James said last Saturday, in a lengthy postgame press conference about Bryant that now takes on the tone of a eulogy. “Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration. It was like, ‘wow.’ Seeing a kid, 17 years old, come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation. He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do.”

The first time they met, at All-Star Weekend in 2002, James was still a teen in high school. He was so over the moon at Kobe giving him “a special red, white and blue colorway of his signature sneakers” that he wore them in a marquee matchup against fellow top prospect Carmelo Anthony—even though they were a size too small.

LeBron also walked in Kobe’s footsteps when it came to testing his wares against pros. As a prep star at Lower Merion High School in 1995, Bryant famously practiced against members of the 76ers, including former North Carolina star and no. 3 draft pick Jerry Stackhouse; he reportedly “more than held his own and even beat Stackhouse in a one-on-one game.” Fast-forward six years. James—not yet a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, but already a high school megastar receiving national attention—gets an invitation to suit up for a run at Hoops the Gym in Chicago with a bunch of NBA players working out to help Michael Jordan prepare for his second comeback. As Chris Broussard would later recount, “The prep star announced himself immediately. [James’s longtime friend Romeo] Travis, back in Akron, began to field calls from the few flabbergasted friends who were in the gym as the youngster scored at will.” Who was LeBron scoring on? You guessed it: Jerry Stackhouse.

LeBron was marked for greatness, dubbed “The Chosen One” before he could vote, destined to etch his name in the firmament alongside the brightest stars the sport had ever seen. But before he could chase the ghost or claim the GOAT, before he could ever reach for the hem of Michael Jordan’s garment, the legend he longed to catch was Kobe. That he eventually got there doesn’t erase all those years spent striving. Nor does it lighten the staggering weight of losing someone who occupied so much space in your youth, or ease the pain of losing a competitor and colleague you held in such high regard.

During the excellent and heartbreaking episode of TNT’s Inside the NBA that aired Tuesday in place of the postponed Lakers-Clippers game, Dwyane Wade said he’d spoken to his former teammate and close friend James, and asked what message he’d want to send to the public if he was sitting in Wade’s place in front of the camera. “The media was trying to put myself, you, and other guys that was good at this game against Kobe,” Wade relayed. “But what they don’t know is that all of us was trying to do our very best to make him proud of us—to respect us.”

LeBron earned that respect over the years. The two squared off 22 times between 2003-04 (James’s rookie season) and 2015-16 (Bryant’s final campaign), with LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat teams going 16-6 against Kobe’s Lakers. But neither superstar would ever really call it a proper rivalry. Those develop not in twice-a-season check-ins, but in the crucible of the postseason, with championships hanging in the balance. And while squads featuring one of the two stars appeared in every NBA Finals series from 2007 through 2018, they never got there at the same time.

We saw some phenomenal series in that span—the Celtics-Lakers matchups in 2008 and 2010; Dirk’s run to delay the Big Three’s coronation in 2011; the Heat-Spurs battles in 2013 and 2014, LeBron vs. the Warriors, headlined by the unprecedented 3-1 comeback in 2016. We weren’t robbed, necessarily. Still: It remains a cosmic bummer that Kobe and LeBron never squared off with a title on the line. It would’ve been amazing to see their stylistic differences laid plain under the mid-June spotlight—to measure Kobe, who had the all-around game to be whatever kind of player he chose, but most frequently operated as a knife aimed at your heart, against LeBron, the Vitruvian Man, arms reaching out in all directions to fling passes to all teammates, a rising tide looking to lift all boats rather than a vengeful storm aiming to capsize yours.

It would’ve been fascinating to directly compare and contrast their mentalities and approaches to leadership in the season’s highest-leverage moments. Kobe, eternally doing his damnedest to remind us how cold-blooded and relentless he was, versus LeBron’s gentler approach, openly saying early in his career that “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody”—an admission that, according to longtime Lakers beat man and Kobe chronicler J.A. Adande, left Bryant wondering “why LeBron would ever say something like that publicly.”

LeBron would sharpen his edge over the years—Your Honor, we’d like to enter into evidence Game 6 from 2012, games 5 through 7 from 2016, and Game 1 from 2018—and found plenty of success doing things his way. But they were always different animals, the snake and the lion each trying to establish themselves atop the food chain. “Jordan was never close to Bryant, and Bryant was never close to LeBron James,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote this week. “That’s just how it goes with most of these iconic stars.” This, perhaps, is why when the two Nike signature athletes eventually shared a commercial, the spot featured puppets rather than the men themselves. There aren’t many friends in the jungle.

They did come together, though, on Team USA. After failing to win gold at tournaments in 2002, 2004, and 2006, the 2008 U.S. men’s national basketball squad set out to restore American dominance in international competition. The journey of the so-called “Redeem Team” began when the best and brightest of a generation—James, Wade, Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul—came down to breakfast on the first day of workouts and found, naturally, Kobe drenched with sweat and icing down his knees, already three hours into his day with a full workout in the books.

“We’re all sitting there thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to reevaluate what I’m doing as a player,’” Wade told Michael Wallace of ESPN in 2015. “That set the tone for pretty much everybody. But that’s always been Kobe.”

For a time, LeBron seemed reluctant to point to Bryant’s example as motivation to find a new competitive level. “It’s not like I took anything back” from China, he once said. That’s not entirely true, of course: LeBron left Beijing with a gold medal (thanks in part to Bryant taking over in the fourth quarter and putting the Spaniards to bed) and stronger bonds with 2003 draftmates Wade and Bosh, which laid the groundwork for the eventual championship team-up in Miami, which led to him wresting the title of the world’s best player away from Bryant in the early 2010s.

When they reconvened for the 2012 London Olympics, it was James who led the way for Team USA, capping a year for the ages—MVP, NBA champion, Finals MVP, and Olympic gold—to firmly entrench himself atop the sport. In the years that followed, LeBron rose, becoming a Finals mainstay suddenly aiming even higher in the historical ranks, while Bryant receded, thanks to failed superteam dreams, devastating injuries, and the march of Father Time.

That change in dynamic, and Bryant’s subsequent retirement, evidently altered and improved the relationship between the two stars. On an episode of his podcast reacting to Bryant’s death, Brian Windhorst said LeBron and Kobe’s relationship had really blossomed in recent years. Ramona Shelburne struck a similar note, saying that they had begun “to develop the relationship that both of them had always wanted to have.” That’s over now, which is cruel and crushing. What’s left is what’s next—creating whatever meaning you can out of the fickle whims of fate, and figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other.

For LeBron and the rest of the Lakers, that starts against the Trail Blazers—their first game back, their first tentative steps in this terrible new normal. For LeBron, it sounds like that means accepting Kobe’s challenge. “God gave me wide shoulders for a reason,” James reportedly said in a Lakers team lunch on Tuesday, according to Bill Oram of The Athletic. On them rests the burden of continuing to move the game, his teammates, a franchise, a city, and a world full of fans, forward, in pursuit of the singular focus of Kobe’s career.

The rest of us will keep trying to figure out where to go from here. LeBron has set his course: He’s going to make Kobe proud by leading the franchise he loved to a championship, by assuming the “responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going.” Maybe he’s not ready. Maybe none of us are. But here he goes.