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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: LeBron Passes Kobe, Then Pays Homage

One legend eclipsing another on the all-time scoring list is monumental enough to remember, but the tragedy soon after James topped Bryant made it a night we’ll never forget for different reasons

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Pay attention to the shoes. LeBron James is in the air, as he often is, the ball rolling up his fingers, as it often does, three defenders behind him, as they often are, while he soars above the fray. He’s wearing black LeBron 17s with “Mamba 4 Life” scribbled on the outside in silver Sharpie. He scores, he lands, and with that, LeBron passes Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

The milestone game was in Philadelphia, where Bryant was born, on January 25. LeBron was too emotional to articulate how much the achievement meant to him. Not because it was another historic benchmark, but because of who he just passed. “There’s just too much. The story is just too much,” he said. “The story doesn’t make sense. Make a long story short, now I’m here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia where he’s from.” Bryant sent his congratulations on Twitter later that night. “Continuing to move the game forward,” he wrote. “Much respect my brother.”

The next day, on January 26, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi died in a helicopter crash with seven other passengers. He was 41 and she was 13. That it happened will forever be difficult to process; that it happened with Bryant so fresh in our minds—headlines and pictures of a smiling Kobe next to LeBron were still circulating online from the night before—made the crash seem even more impossible.

For the entirety of Kobe’s career and the majority of LeBron’s, the two were made out to be quasi-nemeses. I’m sure it was somewhat true, though they never met in the Finals, and I’m sure it faded after time. When two players are so clearly head and shoulders above their peers, there’s no choice but to constantly compare them. After passing Bryant on the scoring list, LeBron shared stories about how much Kobe meant to him from high school to the Olympics to now. In 2002, a teenage LeBron and Maverick Carter, before LeBron was the King and Mav his emissary, drove from New Jersey to Philly for the All-Star Game. They wanted to meet Kobe. By the end of the day, they had, and LeBron walked away with Kobe’s shoes.

“The red, white, and blue Kobes,” LeBron said. “I was a 15, and he was a 14. And I wore ’em anyways. And I sat and just talked to him for a little bit. He gave me the shoes.”

Devout Kobe fans had an identity crisis when LeBron joined the Lakers two summers ago. They’d fought so hard to defend their icon through the years that loving Kobe essentially became one with hating LeBron. For some, 2018 was a strange epiphany: Their loyalty lies with the Mamba, not the Lakers. It was something Kobe urged them to let go. “He is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way,” Bryant said five days before the Lakers went to Philly. If LeBron (34,087) passes Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem (38,387), it will be L.A.’s accomplishment, too. Postponing this season makes reaching the top spot more difficult for LeBron in the race against Father Time, though if he stays in the league for another three or four years, LeBron should eventually claim the top spot.

If LeBron had reached Kobe’s career points total in any other jersey, it would’ve wounded the pride of Lakers fans—and likely increased their resentment for James. But because he was in purple and gold, and because he was in Philadelphia, where it all began, it didn’t seem to sting as much. LeBron passed Kobe in points, but Kobe passed on a city’s adoration to LeBron. “I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man,” James wrote after Bryant died. In creating history like James did that Sixers game, that’s already begun.