The NBA and its marketers, dedicated to maximum hype always, have been rooting (via the medium of puppetry) for a collision of superduperstars in this year’s NBA Finals. The trailer for an ESPN special about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, “Dream Season: 23 & 24,” prematurely posited that the Cleveland Cavalier gives Kobe a long-awaited, worthy rival to test himself against, like Magic Johnson against Larry Bird, each man’s brilliance counterbalanced by the other’s.
But Magic and Bird were true contemporaries: They battled for the college championship, then entered the NBA together as rookies. Kobe was a three-time NBA champ when LeBron was still in high school. And now, at age 30, Bryant is starting to fade from his physical peak, while the 24-year-old James is still on his way up. Their relationship is more like the one between Bird and the aging Julius Erving—though the two did star in a one-on-one video game, their on-court rivalry was punctuated by a frustrated Dr. J grabbing his young tormentor by the throat.
More importantly, the Waiting for LeBron premise shortchanges the rivalry that has truly defined an era in the NBA: Kobe Bryant against the Guy Beating Kobe Bryant.
Ask Paul Pierce. Or Manu Ginobili. Or Chauncey Billups. Or ask Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw—you don’t even have to win an NBA title to enjoy the rewards of beating Kobe Bryant. It is its own reward, the defining rite of passage for a generation of players. This season, it’s Carmelo Anthony and the perennially lightweight Denver Nuggets who have the privilege of slugging it out with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. If he can beat Kobe, Anthony will have established himself as not just a scorer but an all-around star and perhaps an eventual Hall of Famer, the kind of player who can rise to the biggest occasions.
Playing Kobe Bryant is the biggest occasion in the league. From the moment he went pro, Bryant’s obvious, self-conscious ambition was to be the next Michael Jordan, the player against whom all other players would be measured. In his own way, Kobe has reached that goal. It’s just that other players like the way they measure up.
This doesn’t mean that Bryant is easy to beat. If it were easy, nobody would care, and Kobe would be another Jerry Stackhouse or Vince Carter on the scrap heap of failed Next Jordans. Bryant is a ferocious competitor, a preposterously skilled and creative scorer, a stifling defender. He’s just not impossible to beat.
Michael Jordan’s standard of excellence was cruelly unattainable. Once Jordan and the Bulls made it to the top of the league—struggling up through the brutal round-robin among Bird’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers, and the bad boy Pistons—the tradition of new champions wresting the title from the old champ was broken. Nobody was going to wrest anything from Jordan.
The only playoff series he lost after reaching the pinnacle—to Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic—came in Jordan’s short-season comeback from his baseball-playing interregnum. He wore No. 45 when that happened, as if to make sure that posterity would know that the guy getting stripped of the ball by Nick Anderson was not the real Jordan.
Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller—a whole cohort of legends trudged off without ever getting a ring, their best years lost in Jordan’s shadow. The few Jordan-era superstars who did win titles never beat the Bulls star on the court. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler won during the baseball/No. 45 years; David Robinson and Gary Payton were lucky enough to hang on in the league after Jordan’s 1998 retirement.
Kobe, teaming up with O’Neal for three straight titles, seemed as if he might cast the same sort of shadow. Yet for every Jason Kidd or Allen Iverson who was thwarted by the Lakers, there’ve been Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, who have seen their dreams come true at Kobe’s expense. (Karl Malone’s mistake was trying to team up with Kobe for his last shot at a ring rather than going against him.) In his yearning for the post-Jordan spotlight, Kobe became the spotlight himself—it’s in his presence that the other players, and their championship jewelry, shine the brightest.
There’s something crowd-pleasingly definitive about a Kobe Bryant playoff series. When he wins, he wins with full Jordan-esque swagger. You know you’ve been beaten. When he loses—when he loses, he goes into strange, shot-refusing snits; his teams crumple and get routed; he weeps and the tip of his nose turns pink.
Bryant is also the perfect foil for every sort of rivalry. Dynastic? Tim Duncan’s Spurs have four rings to Kobe’s three. Cryptodynastic? The critically acclaimed, fast-breaking Phoenix Suns couldn’t win a title, but they could beat Kobe. Intrasquad? Since their feud broke up the championship Lakers, Shaq has won a ring without Kobe, and Kobe has none without Shaq. Intergenerational? If LeBron doesn’t make the Finals, we’ll have to settle for Carmelo. Player-against-coach? Phil Jackson left L.A. in exasperation, Kobe missed the playoffs entirely, and Jackson came back. And a proof by counterexample: The Miami Heat’s championship win over the Dallas Mavericks was so forgettable because neither team had to beat Kobe to get there. The whole thing felt unpersuasive.
How did Billups transform his reputation from underwhelming journeyman to tough-minded floor general? By beating Kobe and the Lakers. How did Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell go from roster filler to fixtures on the all-defense team? By being the guys who checked Kobe. He is the defining constant in scoring duels (Kobe’s 45 points lost out to Gilbert Arenas’$2 60), scorer-against-stopper matchups (Kobe vs. Tayshaun Prince), and even conceptual arguments—beating Kobe was supposed to be the proof of the Houston Rockets’ stat-nerd theories (though Kobe won).
Even if LeBron James misses his appointment for a showdown in the Finals (or if both of them do), King James has already shown that he too is reliant on the Kingmaker. In February, Bryant scored 61 points against the Knicks to set a new record for Madison Square Garden. Two days later, James followed with a headline-stealing 52 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. One rebound would be deducted on a scorer’s correction afterward, but the apparent triple-double had already sent the intended message: Kobe could score like crazy, but LeBron could dominate every aspect of the game.
After the Olympics, we were treated to stories about how Kobe had proven his superiority to his Olympic teammates, especially James and Anthony. They had been awed by his hard work at training and his ferocious defense, and they deferred to him down the stretch of Team USA’s tight gold-medal-game win over Spain. The purported moral: “Now you’ve seen, up close, what makes Kobe the best player in the world.” But that thinking is a relic of an earlier age. Michael Jordan broke his challengers, convincing every player in the NBA that no one else had what it takes to be the best. Kobe Bryant, too, tests his opponents’ will—but sometimes they pass the test. The real lesson of the Olympics: “Pick up a few pointers from Kobe, and maybe you can take him.”