The two biggest names in all of basketball today -- Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- do not share a natural rivalry. One has played his entire career in the West with the Los Angeles Lakers; the other has been in the East with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. They have never squared off with a championship on the line, or even a playoff series, for that matter. Still, they share a fascinating dynamic. For Bryant, a competitor always looking for an edge, James is a perfect foil who plays many roles.
It was February 2002, and two nights before Kobe Bryant played in the NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, he went to see a 17-year-old player named LeBron James.
The previous summer in New Jersey, Bryant spoke before a group of prep stars that included James at ABCD Camp. James, now a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary, scored 36 points in a win over Oak Hill Academy at a tournament in nearby Trenton, N.J., while wearing a special American flag-themed pair of Bryant's signature shoes that Bryant had personally delivered to him.
Two nights later, Bryant scored 31 against Michael Jordan and the East All-Stars on his way to being named MVP of the game.
Although one was an NBA superstar and the other still in high school, there was, from their early meetings, a connection between them. As the first guard to successfully make the jump from high school to the NBA, Bryant had created a path James would follow half a dozen years later.
But if Bryant felt a kinship with James, there was a competitive edge to it, too. It was June 2003, and James was ready for the biggest day of his life. He was about to be made the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers on national television.
But James' handshake with commissioner David Stern was upstaged that day by breaking news during the broadcast that Bryant planned to opt out of his contract with the Lakers and seek free agency after the next season.
"I just remember LeBron's draft day," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said this week. "Kobe had something that went on there, didn't he? He kind of overplayed it. He took the headlines away from LeBron, in a way."
Jackson paused for a moment.
"I think he had him in his sights right off the bat."
Until that night, Bryant was the game's brightest young star and James was the aspiring player waiting in the wings, but Kobe didn't even wait for James to suit up to signal that the game between them was on.
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The two superstars are friends as well as rivals.
Later, the American flag and sneakers brought James and Bryant together again. It was July 2008, and Nike was sponsoring the U.S. men's basketball team at a Las Vegas training camp as Team USA prepared to play in the summer Olympics in Beijing.
Bryant and James, the two crown jewels of the shoe company's NBA endorsement roster, headlined the team.
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One afternoon during the camp, NBA Entertainment arranged a shoot with just the two of them sitting on a bright red leather couch in an empty nightclub in the basement of the Wynn hotel.
Both men were at a crossroads.
Bryant, on the verge of turning 30, had not won a team championship in six years.
James, still 23 years old, had just completed his fifth season in the league with just one NBA Finals loss (a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs) to show for it.
They needed one another.
Bryant learned from James' inclusive ways as a teammate during that camp and became better at making everyone else feel part of the group.
James learned from Bryant's lone-wolf ways and became more committed to making himself a better player before and after practice, when no other teammates were around.
"There's a mutual respect that we have for one another," Bryant said in the interview they gave that day (a joint interview so rare that is has more than 2.7 million views on the NBA's YouTube channel). "It's that level of respect that enables us to perform at a high level when we compete against each other."
Bryant complimented LeBron's athleticism: "He takes off like he's jumping off a trampoline off of one leg. It's the most ridiculous one-legged takeoff I've seen. It's crazy."
James complimented Kobe's command: "His midrange jumper is by far one of the best that we have, if not the best, that we have in our league. Two dribble, pump fake, reverse spin, shot. … Yeah, I watch it [laughing]. Yeah, I study it."
It was May 2009, and Bryant's Lakers team was in pursuit of playoff redemption (having lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals).
His dominance in individual accolades was about to be tested, as well. News broke that 24-year-old James was to be named the regular season MVP of the 2008-09 season.
It was the first time James received the honor, and it would end Bryant's reign as league MVP for the 2007-08 season.
Reporters waited around the Lakers practice facility that day for Bryant to emerge from the training room and share his thoughts on James winning the award. He never came out, but a person Kobe did talk to that day remembers him saying, "I'll see [him] in the Finals."
Bryant didn't question James' deserving the award or praise him for winning it, but he did show James the ultimate respect, assuming the younger star would lift his team past all the East had to offer and promising he would be there to face him.
It was June 2010, and Bryant's Lakers were preparing to play the Celtics in Game 1 of the Finals.
It was the ultimate moment for ultracompetitive Bryant, a chance at revenge for the embarrassing 39-point Finals-ending loss to the Celtics in 2008.
But in a news conference before tipoff, the conversation strayed from Kobe vs. Paul Pierce and steered toward LeBron when a reporter asked Stern what he thought about James appearing on "Larry King Live" the night before.
"It sort of tells me that our players have, through their hard work, captured the imagination of many, many people," Stern said drily.
It took James seven years, but he got Bryant back just a little for stealing the spotlight on his draft night. Maybe he learned from the best.
It was July 2010, and Bryant was hosting his annual summer camp, the Kobe Bryant Basketball Skills Academy, at the University of California Santa Barbara.
James' much-anticipated announcement about where he would sign as a free agent was scheduled to air the next day. Bryant said he had no plans to watch; he would be in the gym working with his campers.
But it wasn't that he didn't have any interest. He called James a friend.
"Hopefully, he makes the right choice for him, for his family and decides to pick a place where he's happy and doesn't feel like he has to make a particular choice because of the circus that's around them," Bryant said.
James signed with the Miami Heat, of course, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a team Bryant admitted would be "formidable."
It was later in the summer of 2010, and Bryant could not escape the attention paid to the Heat even as his Lakers were celebrating back-to-back NBA championships.
"It motivated him," former Lakers teammate Josh Powell said on the phone this week. "He couldn't wait for the season to remind everyone which team had two rings.
"You know KB ain't threatened by anything or anybody."
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
They have squared off on Christmas before, but the real treat would be to see them in the NBA Finals.
It is December 2010, and Bryant and James will play each other on Christmas Day for the second consecutive year.
James' Cleveland Cavaliers came into Staples Center and embarrassed the Lakers 102-87 last year.
Is there a score to settle this time?
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"I think for players that have been in the league for a long time, when you have a fresh or a new influx of talented guys that are A-list guys, so to speak, I think you acknowledge the fact that they are that good," said Lakers assistant Chuck Person, a Bryant confidant. "You embrace the fact and look forward to continuing to test your mettle against the up-and-coming players."
More years have gone for Bryant, a 15-year veteran, than will come in the future. James, in his eighth season, might not have hit the halfway point yet.
Bryant knows he can never get back the gravity-defying prowess he once had, an athleticism James flashes seemingly without effort.
He will have to match James in some other way, with some other skill, on Saturday (and no doubt down the line again soon). He will pit his champion's experience and will against the challenger's power and hunger.
"I think it's always the push and pull, the oil and vinegar, so to speak when you're talking about skill versus athleticism," Person said. "I think that's what you have when you have a young guy versus a guy that's been in the league 10, 12, 15 years."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe's focus is, as always, on the next challenge, the next run at a ring.
It might be some day in the not too distant future, and Bryant might be looking to add a title to his trophy shelf and James might be standing in his way, fighting for his first ring.
"There's a deep competitive fervor going on between them, and that's natural," Jackson said. "That's just the way it's going to be."
For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, we can only hope he's right, we can only hope that is the way it's going to be.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.
They've both come a long way since then and not just because they have their own Nike puppets and MVP trophies.
Now, for the second consecutive year, they are the centerpiece attraction on the NBA's biggest regular season stage: the featured game on Christmas Day, when they face off at 5 p.m. on ABC.
That fact alone means James is no longer just a face in the crowd. But it doesn't mean that James has lost the viewpoint he had of Bryant before he became a worldwide contemporary. Bryant is still standing at the head of the class that James longs to distance himself from.
"When I was in high school I looked up to him," James said. "I knew at the time that it was possible for me to do what he had done. And what he had done at such a young age in the NBA was unbelievable."
James' opinion of Bryant nine years ago was that of awe. On several fronts, Bryant had blazed a trail that James was about to turn into his own personal superhighway. James was aware to a degree of it then, and now, with the help of maturation and perspective, he has a deeper understanding.
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Bryant paved the way. Now he stands in the way.
Bryant had done what James knew he was going to do: go to the NBA right after high school and do it as a perimeter player. There were other preps-to-pros success stories -- and failures, too -- from that era. Kevin Garnett, of course. There was Jermaine O'Neal. And two weeks before Bryant made his speech to James and other future stars, Kwame Brown had become the first player to be drafted No. 1 overall directly out of high school.
But those were all big men. Young big men have always been selected mostly because of their size, which was one skill that can't be developed. Bryant went to the NBA because his teenage talent overwhelmed more developed men at his position. So, eventually, did James.
"It is humbling to know that he's a peer of mine," James said. "It's a blessing."
Nearly a decade later, James' awe for Bryant has faded. That comes with playing on the same field and even the same team, as they did for two summers with Team USA. But James' respect for Bryant has never been greater.
Unlike Bryant, James did not have the fortune of going to a team that was filled with veterans, soon to be taken over by a Hall of Fame coach and joined by a Hall of Fame center. He can't relate to the rings that Bryant was starting to win when they first met.
But the Heat star certainly can understand what has happened over the past few years when Bryant cemented his place in history as James spun his wheels in frustration attempting to do more than just get to the same holiday marquee.
James made his first Finals in 2007. The same week James was single-handedly taking down the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals, Bryant was reacting to a second straight first-round exit by demanding a trade from the Lakers.
At that moment in time, the tables had turned. Bryant had some rings, but as the sole star, his teams had been a failure. Now it looked like James was the one being stared at by the class. It appeared there had been a change in power.
The three years since have been a reminder of just where Bryant's place is, and that James, in many respects, is still a striving pupil. James has had some great seasons and has even outplayed Bryant routinely in head-to-head matchups. James has even passed him in MVP trophies.
[Bryant] is one of the best competitors we have in the league. He does whatever it takes to win games. I try to do the same.
-- LeBron James
But Bryant's amazing postseason successes continue to outstrip anything James has achieved.
That includes getting his teammates to rise to the occasion regularly over the past two title runs. It has again left James looking up to Bryant as he became frustrated in learning just how difficult it is to get to where Bryant has now been five times.
"Throughout my days of playing against him, being his teammate and going against him a lot, my impression has only risen," James said.
"He's one of the best competitors we have in the league. He does whatever it takes to win games. I try to do the same."
A huge part of that was James' move to Miami this past summer to play with what he hopes is the same type of cast that Bryant has helped win titles in Los Angeles.
Their rivalry, no matter what the marketing might be, is more out of a quest for a common goal than that of one-upmanship. Not unlike the challenge of becoming a first-round draft pick at the age of 18, only with higher stakes and greater rewards.
When Bryant talked about his success that day in New Jersey, he might not have fully appreciated how much work it was to get there, even though he'd been to the mountain. Now, after years of mentally taxing struggles, he clearly knows and it shows every spring.
When James reached the Finals in just his second trip to the postseason, he might not have fully appreciated how much work it took to get there, either.
Now, after years of watching Bryant again show him the way, James wants to get where Bryant is. Again.
"He does whatever it takes; he puts himself and his teammates in a position to win," James said. "He holds himself to a higher standard. I'm trying to do that."