The Rivalry That Never Was: Kobe vs. LeBron
Last Thursday, Kobe Bryant played his final game against LeBron James as the Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers for the last time this regular season. As a long-time Lakers fan, I’ve found it very difficult to watch my team play these past few horrendous seasons, but with the Lakers coming into the game with a two-game winning streak (including a shocking win against the defending champs — the Golden State Warriors), I was excited to see if the Lakers could pull off another upset through the impressive development of our younger players.
The fact that Kobe was going up against LeBron was just icing on the cake.
Let me explain: Back when Kobe was in his prime, there was a lot of fanfare made about a potential rivalry between the two stars. However, the rivalry never truly came to fruition, as they never had the opportunity to go head-to-head in the NBA Finals. But even if they were to have met, I find it difficult to define their relationship as a rivalry because Kobe and LeBron each represented a different era of basketball.
Kobe Bryant was drafted in 1996, along with Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Steve Nash. They entered the NBA at a time when Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and others, were still dominating the league. To demonstrate how long ago this was, keep in mind that Space Jam, the Michael Jordan classic featuring Bugs Bunny and the gang, was released in theaters at the beginning of Kobe’s rookie season. LeBron James was only 11 years old.
I’m actually the same age as LeBron James, so I remember that era very well, and I also remember what the NBA was like in 2003 when he was drafted. All the aforementioned players of the Jordan Era had retired or were no longer relevant, and Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan had begun their championship-winning reign over the NBA. The stars of the era were Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd, among others. Most of these players have now since retired, or on the verge of retiring in a season or two.
LeBron James was in the new class of upcoming stars, which included Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul, all of whom which are still capable of playing at a high level today. By the time LeBron James had developed into a dominant force, Kobe was in the process of winning his final two championships during the twilight of his prime years. Unfortunately, LeBron’s prime years never perfectly aligned with Kobe’s because of their age difference; while LeBron was entering his prime seasons, Kobe’s were behind him.
I think Kobe described it best recently when he said:
I wouldn’t say he was a rival. I just felt like we were completely different generations. I just missed that thing completely. Not like a Magic and Bird sort of thing. It was more like, from the time he came in the league it was more helping him, giving him direction, advice, ’cause I was just so much older by NBA years.
As a fan, I would have loved for there to have been a rivalry between the two players, but the timing was just off. It would’ve been similar to how Magic Johnson battled it out against Michael Jordan in the 1991 NBA Finals. That series is now seen more as a passing-of-the-torch than a rivalry because Magic was on the decline while Michael was entering another stratosphere.
I certainly understand the hype, however, and would have loved seeing the Lakers versus either the Cavs or the Heat in the NBA Finals. Anything to have seen more of these hilarious commercials: