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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: One LeBron Dunk Becomes the Perfect Kobe Tribute

How a breakaway in February produced an iconic sports photo and unknowingly honored an icon

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

One of my favorite things on the internet is this roughly six-minute video montage of the SportsCenter “Images of the Decade.” They just put out the 2010s version, but I’m partial to the 2000s—between the musical choice (shout-out “Clocks”) and all the poignant moments, it’s a perfect piece of content. In nine years, when we’re remembering the images of the 2020s, one particular highlight will have to be included.

On February 6, when the Lakers faced the Rockets, LeBron James received an outlet pass from Avery Bradley with no one between him and the basket. I was sitting in the media seats right behind this basket, and thought to myself, “Here we go.” I was expecting a classic LeBron dunk—the towering tomahawk he often deploys to make a statement. You’ve seen it before, everyone has, and the crowd was ready to react to it. Instead, LeBron pitched a curveball.

It was a perfect two-handed, reverse windmill dunk. My eyes widened and the fans at Staples Center went berserk. LeBron just jogged back on defense with a deadpan look. The dunk and LeBron’s overall performance was sure to be the story of the night. Within 30 minutes, the picture popped up on Twitter and quickly became a phenomenon.

The conversation shifted from the dunk to the photo, and frankly, it was deserved. The image was immaculate—as if it was painted by an artist over a long period of time and not captured in a millisecond. The photographer, Andrew Bernstein, was standing on the other end of the court, by the Rockets’ basket, when he clicked the shutter of a camera set up on the opposite end. It was a combination of perfect placement, divine timing, and undeniable talent—both Bernstein’s and LeBron’s.

But the highlight had yet another life to live. Not 24 hours later, the Lakers made a dazzling discovery: Nineteen years ago, Kobe Bryant performed the same exact breakaway dunk on the same basket, in the same arena. The team’s social media account posted a side-by-side video of both dunks:

It was eerie how both players contorted their bodies in identical fashion, as if they were synchronized swimmers. Just two weeks earlier, Kobe’s death in a helicopter crash rocked the Lakers, Los Angeles, the NBA, and the world. What started off as an impressive LeBron dunk became a symbol that perfectly married history and emotion.

“I didn’t predetermine that either until I jumped,” LeBron said of the dunk’s resemblance to Kobe’s. The fact that he evoked Bryant without knowing it makes the moment even more special.

I don’t think I will ever forget watching that LeBron dunk in person, just like I won’t forget the first game the Lakers played after Kobe’s passing or the Bryants’ memorial, or the first game the NBA plays once it returns from this current hiatus. Circle back with me before the decade is up, but I don’t think anyone else will forget it either.