LeBron in Los Angeles is still hard to grasp despite the visuals of a signed contract, a grinning LeBron, and a hilarious Brandon Ingram photoshop. Over the years, the fans of Jerry Buss’ team were conditioned to dismiss anything positive about the LeBron James career, including the King himself. James wasn’t an enemy per se, that’s too strong of a characterization and more hostile than was the case, but at the very least James was a disliked rival based on NBA standards that make you pick one. Magic or Larry? Pick one. Wilt or Russell? Pick one. Shaq or Olajuwon? Ray Allen or Reggie Miller? Pick one. Kobe or LeBron? Pick one. The NBA requires fealty.
Whenever LeBron James name was mentioned around town, eye rolls ensued. He was a diva. He failed gloriously. He didn’t dominate with his willfulness. The Decision was a disaster and he was too immature or narcissistic to figure that out beforehand. He wasn’t Kobe and at the same time- and this was the irony- he was Kobe. He couldn’t get along with another superstar either, albeit the Kyrie Irving dissonance was much quieter than the Kobe-Shaq feuds.
In this moment, Laker fans are giddy, excited, predictive about championships, and just damned glad the losing drought is in the rear view mirror and that LeBron James chose an incomplete team. It’s a shout out to the city and what the city represents that many Midwestern visitors just don’t get. But despite all of the euphoric ecstasy from Malibu to Silverlake, there is the Kobe problem that remains on the hill, buried slightly, but still visible.
Perspective is lacking. Some fans can’t accept things end, things end. LeBron drives them to lose their sanity. How else to explain a LeBron James mural repeatedly vandalized, forcing the artist to throw in the towel and paint over it. Defacing a piece of art because Kobe matters more is third grade logic and behavior. Disrespect for the artist who spent days creating his masterpiece is focusing on the wrong thing. This is a town of creative people and creation is revered as holy. But those of us who live in this city and have seen the Kobe idolization grow more manic and paranoid are not surprised it would get out of hand in such a public way that outsiders find particularly stupid. For 20% of Lakers fans, Kobe Bryant was larger than the team itself. Devotion to him was excessive and lacked boundaries. Some Kobe fans were nuts. But it made sense.
Kobe Bryant was here for 20 years. A car doesn’t last 20 years. Most marriages don’t last 20 years. Job security is rarely two decades old. Furthermore, this is a city that throws out the old; the young matter. Relationships become real stale after year 7. So 20 years is a thing. But 20 Kobe years came and went. Here he was. Teenager. Young. Adult. Man. Older. In L.A. On the freeways. At the mall. Dating. Married. With Kids. Facing trial. Chilling at In-N-Out. At the movies. Parent problems. Back-to-back-to-back champion. Back-to-back champion. Achilles rip.
His basketball beginning and basketball ending dovetailed into a perfect storm that rarely happens in any sport much less professional basketball. He changed the Lakers. He triggered the fans.
Because Kobe Bryant was here as a kid, because we raised him, he is a city product. LeBron is a wonderful get and his presence changes the Lakers. But he can’t duplicate what Kobe Bryant did here from 1996-2016, even if he wins 5 Laker titles.
Kobe or LeBron?
They were perfectly opposite and foreign in a way Kobe and Michael Jordan never could be. Kobe and Jordan had too many similarities for the conversation to go very far. Jordan had bigger, monstrous hands and a larger body. He didn’t take the risky shots or have the arrogance to drive through double teams like Bryant. He was a better defender, rarely taking chances. Kobe had an impressive shot selection from everywhere on the floor. His footwork was legendary. The Jordan-Kobe game from the head up, their willfulness and competitiveness and arrogance, was a perfect ten. They looked at basketball identically. Winning. Or, misery. Winning. Or, misery. Basketball was life. Or, it was misery.
But LeBron James, unlike Bryant and Jordan, was raised in poverty, had an extrovert’s way of looking at the world. He liked friends, liked people, had grand ambitions he wasn’t shy about expressing. He wanted to be a hero on and off the court, too much so at times. Things bothered him, small slights that Bryant and Jordan didn’t care about.
When LeBron entered the league, Bryant’s sexual assault trial was the NBA news and LeBron handled it like a pro even at 18. He said he supported Bryant because he was a member of the league and all members are united. LeBron had a preternatural maturity that would shape shift his career through its multiple iterations. The media participated in the LeBron romance viewing him as the anti-Kobe. He was warm. He was likeable. He wasn’t arrogant. Teammates wanted to play with him. LeBron had a socialist’s game, everyone was enabled. He wanted to make teammates better while Bryant wanted to just be better.
They both played with Shaq and Luke Walton. They got to know each other on the Olympic team and it was one more LeBron classroom, how Bryant woke up before everyone else, was in the gym sweating and working out before the sun rose, how serious he prepared, how his aggression and hard ass nature was his DNA. And then in China during the Olympics, the way he was fetishized among the Chinese public made his teammates want that very same thing. Global stardom.
While LeBron was trying to figure out NBA excellence, Los Angeles was already a Kobe town. It was a Kobe town because he did what L.A. folk want their athletes to do. Stay. Love the organization. Compete. Don’t make excuses. And deliver titles. Stay. Love the organization. Compete. Don’t make excuses. Deliver titles.
What are Kobe fans to do after years of hating LeBron? 5 titles beats 3 is their go-to line. But it’s not about titles.
This is the irony of Kobe’s last professional moment on the NBA stage, his last game. A Kobe-hater who lives here watched it and said, “that was the greatest performance I have ever seen.” It perfectly summed up who Kobe Bryant is in the city of Los Angeles. Loved. Beloved. Hated. Followed. Admired. Criticized. But respected. He owned all the adjectives. He belonged to us, this skinny kid who became so much more. All he wanted was to win. To win for L.A.
LeBron is not ours. LeBron is borrowed. He is Akron. He is Cleveland. He is Miami. He is Olympics. And politics. And movies. And Klutch Sports. LeBron has had a bunch of iterations and changing courses and shifting shapes but always excellence and getting to the Finals. LeBron is coming to Los Angeles a man. He has his eye on the end and what success in Los Angeles means after his career is over. His dream of being a billionaire is still on course. He has just been signed for a movie role. But LeBron, multi-talented, interested in everything, isn’t a mythic figure. He isn’t a fantasy. We didn’t raise him. He didn’t come here as nothing and became everything. LeBron is coming here with everything expecting to be even more. We are his end. Not his start. Not his middle.
No matter. The Kobe-philes are emotionally triggered by all this LeBron media storm in its excessive lore. They don’t do subtleties well, just surface outlines. They don’t understand two men can be different, excellent, champions, and one doesn’t erase the other. You can love them both. Older brother, younger brother if you need a reason to turn the Kobe page. But turn the Kobe page, please. His NBA career is over. Accept it and not the Matt Barnes dream. That Kobe Bryant is walking through that Staples Center door.