The 2009 NBA season revolved around the expected NBA Finals meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Lakers led by Kobe Bryant. The expectations were in full swing when Nike ran a season-long series of ads called the MVPuppets that had puppet versions of the two stars competing against each other. That NBA Finals matchup never happened thanks to the Cavs being eliminated in the second round. But that didn’t stop the endless debates over who was the best player between the two. In fact, the Kobe vs. LeBron debate has raged for pretty much all of the 21st century despite the fact they never played any post-season games against one another or really had any shared high-stakes basketball moments to warrant a true on-court rivalry.
The Kobe vs. LeBron debate went nuclear last season when LeBron decided to join the Lakers. The line in the sand remained and only seem to become more apparent. Fanatical LeBron fans made it clear that they weren’t supporting Kobe’s team and Kobe fans made it clear that they would never fully initiate LeBron into the fold as a true Lakers great.
But a funny thing happened in the heart of all of this chaos: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant never bought into any rivalry talk. Instead, they celebrated one another and loved each other out loud to the very end. Kobe and LeBron defied expectations and hyped one another up as brothers when they seemed to be the only people invested in maintaining that relationship.
After all, there was a lot for them to fight over if they wanted to. LeBron’s venture into a Lakers jersey meant that Kobe would have a challenger to his claim to being the best player to ever wear a Lakers jersey and Kobe’s legacy would always overshadow LeBron’s ability to be the most beloved star of the team and king of the city. They could have jockeyed for their own narratives, begrudgingly acknowledging each other while embarking in a cold war for Los Angeles rulership. I think we as fans wanted them to indulge us in their rivalry, too.
But there they were: dapping each other up on the sidelines, deferring to one another and praising each other in the eye of a storm that wanted them to do otherwise. For us watching, it was jarring to see. Men — Black men — aren’t supposed to be like this. They are supposed to be alpha males in Michael Jordan’s image. We wanted the dog fights. We wanted the rivalry. We wanted the tension.
It’s poetic, then, that the last week of Kobe Bryant’s life was spent with LeBron James giving him flowers. The entire week was spent in preparation for LeBron surpassing Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Every soundbite LeBron gave was about Kobe’s greatness. He spoke on his HBO show “The Shop” about meeting Kobe when he was in high school: “He gave me a pair of his shoed. That was the craziest thing as a high school junior….it was amazing.” The two men had been seen as equals and rivals for so long that we forget LeBron is even young enough to look up to Kobe. These aren’t stories he has to tell.
The memories they’ve often shared of one another aren’t about the times they played against each other on the court. It was about the actual highest stakes games they played together, which occurred in the 2008 Olympics. This was the summer their friendship blossomed and they took over in the gold medal game. It’s poetic that their lasting highlights are as teammates, taking on the world that tried to dethrone them.
“It was a dream come true for me to be able to line up alongside of him…I admired him for so many years seeing him from afar and then being able to be at practices with him and me watching and learning,” LeBron said after breaking Kobe’s scoring record the night before the fateful helicopter crash that killed the Lakers legend and eight others.
The night of LeBron surpassing Kobe – which took place in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, ironically – was an equal parts celebration of both stars. LeBron spoke for four minutes and 33 seconds after the game. Everything he said was about the legend of Kobe Bryant.
What he didn’t know. What no one could know was that this would be in effect a eulogy. Less than 24 hours later, Kobe Bryant would be dead. His final tweet a torch-passing to LeBron:
Right now we are all hurting and that pain seems like all we can see. But someday, LeBron will look back and I’m sure he’ll be heartened by the fact that he didn’t waste a moment to his life at odds with someone he truly loved. That he and Kobe didn’t allow the pressures of being rivals — of being the man — erase their inclinations to boost one another up and love each other louder than the voices that told them not to. Their love was defiant. Their love was Black as hell. And the way they loved each other as Black men is a light we can hold on to as we continue to cope and figure out the lessons we can gain from this tragedy.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.