On the day LeBron James announced he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers this past July, the owner of an L.A. shoe store approached artist JC Ro with an ill-advised idea.
He asked Ro to remove the popular Kobe Bryant mural he’d painted on the side of the shop two years earlier and replace it with one welcoming LeBron to the city.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think we should do that,’” Ro said with a chuckle. “‘I don’t fault you for wanting to switch things up, but I’ll tell you right now, the thing that would piss off Kobe fans the most is if Kobe is removed and LeBron was put up in his place.’”
Hoping to show his client how some Lakers diehards would respond to the implication that Kobe’s longtime nemesis could replace him as Los Angeles’ favorite son, Ro asked permission to use the mural to conduct an experiment. He’d print out a 4-foot photo of LeBron’s face, tape it atop Kobe’s neck and wait to see how long it would take for a Kobe loyalist to spot it and knock it down.
LeBron’s face covered Kobe’s for just a day before 20-year-old Lakers fan Andrew Perez noticed it while on a date with his girlfriend. Calling it “blasphemy,” Perez removed one of his shoes and chucked it 10 times at the printout of LeBron’s face before it finally fell. His girlfriend filmed the whole saga on her phone, even catching Perez punching the image of LeBron’s face in disgust as it floated to the ground.
“That mural is my favorite piece of street art in Los Angeles, so when I saw LeBron’s face covering Kobe’s, I couldn’t allow it,” said Perez, a lifelong Lakers fan and resident of Glendora, California. “I didn’t want anyone thinking that Kobe wasn’t still the king in L.A.”
Saw this blasphemy of LeBron’s face taped on top of #mambaonmelrose, so I had to do what was right. Thank you for coming @KingJames, but @kobebryant is still the king of LA. pic.twitter.com/VbayCu0OxO
— Andrew Perez (@andoneperez) July 4, 2018
While the arrival of basketball’s most dominant force is cause for celebration for most Lakers supporters, a small yet vocal subsection of the team’s fan base is uncomfortable with a former hated adversary suddenly becoming the new face of the franchise. These are Kobe’s most staunchly loyal devotees, fans predisposed to dislike LeBron after spending much of the past decade doggedly pushing back against the perception that the King had overtaken the Black Mamba as the best player of the post-Michael Jordan era.
Interviews with a half-dozen of these longtime Lakers fans and Kobe zealots reveal that they’re deeply conflicted as their team prepares to part the curtains on the LeBron era Thursday night in Portland. Some merely are still having a hard time envisioning cheering for a player they’ve rooted against for so long. Others will only be happy if the Lakers succeed this year in spite of LeBron rather than because of him, so that he doesn’t bolster his already strong case to surpass Bryant on the list of all-time greats.
“I’m cheering for the Lakers, but not for LeBron,” said Steve Delgado, a Los Angeles native who now lives in Las Vegas. “With all the [stuff] I’ve said about LeBron over the years, I’d feel like a complete hypocrite if I cheered for him just because now he’s on my team. That’s phony, and I’m not a phony.”
A great debate, not a great rivalry
What prevents Kobe vs. LeBron from ever being mentioned among the NBA’s historic rivalries is one minor detail: They didn’t actually face off in a single playoff series. Either Kobe or LeBron has appeared in 16 of the past 19 NBA Finals, but they somehow never managed to make it the same year.
LeBron was still in high school at the height of the Kobe-Shaq dynasty, and James’ Cleveland teams never made it out of the Eastern Conference playoffs when the Lakers reemerged as title contenders from 2008-10. The aging Lakers then gradually fell back in the West pecking order at the same time LeBron configured super-teams in Miami and Cleveland and began a streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances.
The best chance for a Kobe vs. LeBron NBA Finals appeared to be the 2008-09 season when the Cavs posted the NBA’s best regular-season record and the Lakers finished 11 games clear of their closest Western Conference competition. LeBron even appeared to catch a break when the Orlando Magic eliminated reigning NBA champion Boston in the Eastern Conference semis, but behind a dominant Dwight Howard and an array of 3-point shooters, the Magic toppled the Cavs in six games.
“I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for us to meet in the Finals,” LeBron told reporters in Cleveland three years ago during Kobe’s farewell season. “I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it. We wanted it. He held up his end and I didn’t hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn’t happen.”
While Kobe vs. LeBron never evolved into the rivalry it could have been, what it became instead was a great debate. Fans on either side dug in their heels and argued passionately over who was better much the same way those in world soccer circles debate the merits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The way Kobe acolytes saw it, their guy had more championships, a superior NBA Finals record and a toughness and killer instinct that a melodramatic flopper like LeBron could never match. You never saw LeBron score 81 points in a single game, did you? Or insist on staying in a game to shoot free throws after tearing an Achilles?
The way LeBron zealots saw it, their guy had a higher career winning percentage, a superior all-around game and an ability to make teammates better that a shoot-first ball hog like Kobe could never match. You never saw Kobe tally 73 career triple-doubles, did you? Or drag a supporting cast of Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the NBA Finals?
The relentless banter inspired Nike to design a memorable 2009 ad campaign featuring Kobe and LeBron living together as puppets. In one spot, LeBron exasperates Kobe by getting chalk all over their living room while clapping his hands together and celebrating that playoff time had arrived. In another, Kobe not so subtly brags about his three championship rings at a time when LeBron had yet to win one.
Nike spared no expense on the ad campaign, hiring the studio that created the Muppets to build the puppets, a team of comedians to write the scripts and actors Kenan Thompson and David Alan Grier to do the voices. Digital designers submitted dozens and dozens of iterations of the Kobe and LeBron puppets before Nike executives were satisfied.
“The second we knew it was Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Nike, we felt like it had a chance to do well, but to see everything come together, it was amazing,” designer Mauricio Ruiz said. “People liked it so much that Nike picked it up again to do it the following season. That’s never happened before to me. It’s one of the most successful, iconic productions I’ve worked on.”
A new hero in town
Having boarded the anti-LeBron bandwagon more than a decade ago, many Lakers fans stayed on it through The Decision, the formation and breakup of the Heatles and LeBron’s triumphant return to Cleveland. Rooting against LeBron became part of their basketball identity, even if some of them also begrudgingly grew to appreciate the brilliance of his game and his growing impact as a social activist.
Many of those same Lakers fans also became attached to the young core their team had stockpiled through the draft over the course of five consecutive losing seasons. Making a splashy trade or landing big-name free agents didn’t appeal to those fans if it meant stunting the growth of Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, or jettisoning Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram.
That climate helps explain why Lakers fans did not universally support the idea of making a run at signing LeBron. Forty-two percent of the more than 10,000 Lakers supporters polled by ESPN’s Arash Markazi last February said they did not want LeBron, a surprisingly high number for a team in the midst of a five-year playoff drought.
“When I heard there was a chance that he might come to the Lakers, I didn’t really want him,” said Nikki Ramirez, a 23-year-old Lakers fan and resident of Watsonville, California. “I’d always disliked him a lot and thought he was very cocky. The idea of seeing him on the Lakers and rooting for him was very, very weird.”
The July headlines in Los Angeles reflected a city fraught with internal conflict over LeBron’s arrival.
On July 10, hundreds of enthusiastic Lakers fans lined up for hours at a Culver City pizza place because of a tweet LeBron sent hinting that he might stop by. Two days later, artist Jonas Never grew frustrated with continued vandalism to his new LeBron mural in Venice and covered it up with white paint.
The impetus for the vandalism may have been a tweet from @BenOsaze providing the location of Never’s mural and offering $300 to anyone who destroyed it. Less than 48 hours later, someone defaced Never’s work by graffitiing the phrases “We don’t want you,” “LeFraud,” “No King,” and “3-6” [James’ Finals record] in gold spray paint.
The owner of the @BenOsaze account told Yahoo Sports that his tweet was “intended as a joke” and that he was “surprised that someone actually went out to deface the mural.” The man declined to provide his first and last name because he “received death threats from numerous LeBron fans” and had people scouring his timeline for clues regarding his location or identity.
Anti-LeBron incidents have been less common in Los Angeles in recent weeks, perhaps a result of Kobe himself giving the Lakers’ newest star his stamp of approval.
In July, Kobe described himself as “really, really excited” about LeBron coming to the Lakers and pledged to do anything he could to help his former USA Basketball co-star. Then in late August, Kobe urged his diehard fans to “fall in line” and support LeBron during a radio interview on The Rich Eisen Show.
“If you are a fan of mine, you are a fan of winning, you are a fan of the Lakers,” Kobe said. “I bleed purple and gold. So that is above anything else.”
Judging from the sea of No. 23 jerseys at Lakers preseason games, most Los Angeles fans appear to be adopting Kobe’s mindset. Lakers supporters greeted LeBron with thunderous applause the first time he was introduced at Staples Center. There were even sporadic M-V-P chants, something once reserved only for Kobe.
Among those whose opinion of LeBron is softening is Perez, the Lakers fan who used his shoe to knock LeBron’s face off Kobe’s mural last July. Perez says he will never have the same appreciation and admiration for LeBron that he does for Kobe, but he’ll still be pulling for the Lakers’ newest star when the season begins.
“As soon as he puts on the Lakers uniform, I have to cheer for him,” Perez said. “If LeBron helps win a title, I’ll be happy. I’ll be there for the parade. Maybe in my heart of hearts, I hope Kuzma or Lonzo is the budding star that leads them, but if it’s LeBron, I won’t complain.”
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Sources: Red Sox warned about alleged Astros cheating
• Controversial trade backfires on Astros
• Pete Thamel: Top 10 college football QB prospects
• Tim Brown: Dodgers’ Machado emerges as October’s villain