PHILADELPHIA — LeBron James sat at his locker Saturday night, recalling to reporters the day he first ran across Kobe Bryant nearly two decades ago.
Neither were aware their careers would be inextricably linked through near misses, shared experiences and never-ending comparisons to a bald-headed GOAT.
James was in high school, driving up to Philadelphia with close friend Maverick Carter for All-Star Weekend in 2002. Bryant, then an Adidas pitchman, gave the high school junior some red, white and blue Kobe’s, which James later wore in a nationally televised game.
Bryant won All-Star MVP in front of his hometown crowd that year, actually getting booed by a fan base still stinging from a Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers the year before. James received an expected amount of cheers from an acknowledging crowd that witnessed history Saturday, when he passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list in a 108-91 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The collective basketball world, Twitter and anyone with an opinion has tried to make James and Bryant rivals, if not on the floor but for their places in basketball history. They never played a truly significant game opposite one another, narrowly missing each other in Junes over the last decade.
But they share a space only they can relate to, a responsibility carried by statesmen of the game that requires they be the best version of themselves every night.
One can say James has had to carry the weight longer than Bryant because of his pedigree and hype upon entering the league nearly two years after their chance meeting, but Bryant later grew to embrace what it meant to have to carry the league on his slender shoulders.
When James drove by Ben Simmons in the third quarter Saturday night following a few near misses to pass Bryant on the scoring list, it didn’t cement him as a greater scorer than Bryant.
“He had zero flaws offensively. Zero,” James said of Bryant. “You backed off him, he could shoot the three. You body him up a little bit, he could go around you. He could shoot the midrange, the post, make free throws. That’s something I admired.”
While James doesn’t fully possess those attributes, the narrative that “he’s not a scorer” is ridiculous. His game has always been high-usage, probing, attacking and yes, getting others involved but save for moments or notable meltdowns, scoring is on the menu — it’s just that his instinct is to make the right play. And many times that’s been him taking plenty of shots.
And fans have been treated to his consistency over the last 17 years, many of which were highlighted by him being the best player in basketball. But that’s different than carrying the expectation of having to perform to a high standard every night, in every arena you walk into.
Since Michael Jordan left the game permanently, only two players have carried that burden — James and Bryant. Not Shaquille O’Neal at his most dominant. Not Tim Duncan or Steve Nash or Kevin Durant or even Stephen Curry, although Curry comes the closest to James and Bryant.
Jordan knew his obligations — one of the reasons the game wore him down by his ninth year, leading to his abrupt 1993 retirement and retreating to the solitude of minor league baseball before returning 18 months later.
After all the playoff runs, Olympic years and beatings his body took, Jordan suited up for 331 out of 331 games from March 1995 until his final game in a Chicago Bulls uniform in 1998.
Whether mythology or truth, Jordan embraced the rarity of him going into a new building every night and someone seeing him for the first and only time. It didn’t guarantee greatness, but that special something was always a possibility.
Saturday was the perfect example of this, the last game on a long road trip across the country, a recipe for even the league’s best players to put forth a half-assed effort.
But it was on national TV, and the bigger stakes were at hand for James.
He wasn’t even the best player on the floor Saturday, not even close. At best, he was third behind Simmons and teammate Anthony Davis. But you never got the feeling James wasn’t going for it, that he wasn’t trying to take advantage of every opportunity to work himself into a lathered rhythm.
Whether he was motivated by playing hard for his team or himself, or the nationally televised audience, it didn’t feel like you were getting an off-Broadway performance. Win or lose, bad game or masterpiece, fans usually walk away feeling they got their money’s worth. The NBA will have a hard time replicating this, or replacing James’ understanding of his responsibility to the game when he leaves it, even though there are so many talented, gifted athletes entering the league year after year.
But how many have the understanding of what’s required when the options to sit or pull off the throttle are so commonplace? Short of a two-week stint during his second time in Cleveland and last year’s groin injury that caused the longest injury absence of his career, you can pencil James in for at least 75 games a season — a feat not even Bryant could accomplish.
And even when James isn’t great, he’s still box office.
James was minus-22 Saturday night, missing five of his six 3-point attempts, and he turned the ball over eight times to go with his 29 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. But there were several times in which it appeared the Lakers — and James — were stalking the 76ers in the second half, waiting to pounce if there was an opening.
That’s the challenge when facing James: Beating the competitor who can turn it around at any moment and beating the mystique of him, too.
It’s not that teams have to beat the best version of James, because we can’t say he’s the best player in the game anymore. If he were, he would’ve taken on the challenge of guarding Simmons when the young colt was tattooing his signature on the game, being a whirling dervish on both ends despite his much-discussed weakness of not being a threat offensively outside of the paint.
James used to dart around the floor the way Simmons did Saturday, having an endless reservoir of energy and hops to meet the rim with his eyes instead of his arms when going for dunks.
But for whatever James has lost in athleticism, he’s gained through the years in experience and smarts, with the slippage being so minute it’s difficult to tell with the naked eye.
And the fans still get their money’s worth — rarefied air James and Bryant will forever breathe in.
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