What Kobe Vs. LeBron Means

Clash of the Beasts: Kobe Bryant’s Lakers played LeBron James’s Heat on Sunday. Kobe scored 33 points, most on fading jump shots, and the Lakers won 93-83. LeBron scored 25 points in the loss, with 13 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks. Kobe played a little better than LeBron, but the difference was the rest of the team. The other Lakers played really well, especially Metta World Peace (I want the jersey); the other Heat players played lousy.

It was a good game, even if it wasn’t such a good game, because LeBron and Kobe are the two best, most intriguing basketball players we have.

LeBron is a tragic figure – a man with everything and nothing simultaneously, like Citizen Kane. He’s 6-foot-8 or -9 and he weighs at least 275 pounds. It’s all muscle, and he’s completely comfortable and coordinated within that huge build. He has basketball abilities we’ve never seen in someone so large before, yet the whole spectacular machine is anchored by an essentially human flaw: he wilts under pressure.

When LeBron is on the bench he often chews at his nails, while his big baby eyes search the arena around him. When he’s in the game he gets low, wide and fast on defense, covering more than just a single player on the other team. He jumps higher than anyone else to snatch rebounds. His passes are bullets, fired from almost any body position, to guys who don’t even know they’re open. He’s so big and strong that his 3 pointers look like easy jump shots, and LeBron is a clutch 3-point shooter. (The deep 3 is a weapon he kills teams with at the end of close games.)

Get too close, though, and he’ll do what he does better than anyone else: bull rush the hoop at blazing speed, jump from well far away, finish for two points with either a dunk or layup or floater. Get in his way and you’ll get hurt.

Kobe is older than LeBron – 33 vs. 27 – with a ton of basketball miles on his legs. When he was in his prime athletically, he teamed with terrifying seven-foot Super-Man-Beast Shaquille O’Neal in the early aughts to win three titles in a row. Once he hit 30 and lost some of the lift in his legs, Kobe adjusted his game to be fiercer from outside – just like Michael Jordan did – and won two more championships, back-to-back, without Shaq, including one over the Lakers’ long-time rivals, the Celtics.

(Kobe nicknamed himself “Black Mamba.” My favorite shoes I’ve ever owned are my 2011 Kobes, purchased for $35 at the Nike outlet store in Santa Fe. [If you need shoes, go there.] They stick to the *cough*handball!*cough* court when I need them to. They have a soft feel on my feet and a silver, snake-skin design on the outsole. I love them.)

Kobe doesn’t have nearly the power of LeBron. The Mamba is basketball fast, though, and can stop and start so suddenly. He keeps his dribble alive with smooth movements any direction. Kobe dribbles like he has spent hours bouncing a basketball every day since he was a little kid. (This is most likely exactly what he’s done.) Kobe will dribble a few bounces in any direction and shoot a feathery jumper with perfect backspin. He can do this from anywhere, so defenders don’t know what to do with him.

Basketball at its highest level has got to be about timing and nuance, because defense is so good. There’s genius in being able to make enough space with your dribble that you can launch a shot with the exact stroke you want. Kobe is the master of this.

He’s also mean. He makes a scary face sometimes:

He talks shit about his teammates and will chew them out on the court for playing badly. He cheated on his wife with tons of women, and he plays like it.

Picture the trajectory of basketball awesomeness from Michael Jordan to Kobe to LeBron. Jordan didn’t get famous until he was a champion in college, at North Carolina. Kobe was famous as a high-school senior, but he was still a mid-round draft pick (straight out of high school, so no college for Kobe). No one expected a player this great when he came into the NBA.

LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was a junior in high school. That headline said “The Chosen One.” He kept getting better and better at basketball, but it’s widely acknowledged that the keys to his greatness are size and athleticism, which come pretty naturally. Whereas Jordan and Kobe had to earn their spotlights as players at the professional level, LeBron got his as a little kid. From then on, he’s been surrounded by enablers telling him how good he is.

LeBron is awkward and unfunny. He’s going bald. He choked last year in the finals. He’ll almost certainly get back there this year, and history says he’ll blow it again.

It’s neat to watch two amazing athletes collide this way. LeBron’s entering his prime as Kobe’s exiting his. Kobe, though, knows he’s got more guts than The Chosen One, and will fight like a starving dog to keep the young buck down. Unless he flakes out and doesn’t. Interestingly, Kobe has quit in the playoffs before, just like LeBron has. That’s the exception for Kobe, though, while with LeBron it’s the rule.

Jordan? He never quit in the playoffs.

Anyway, these are the two teams casual fans will want to be watching: Lakers and Heat. Hopefully, they’ll meet in the finals. If they don’t, it’s probably because something odd has happened in the complicated mind of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

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