Comparisons between the two are ubiquitous to the point I'm always hesitant to put Kobe Bryant and LeBron James together in any discussion. Beyond the overkill, in sports, like politics, people tend to react viscerally rather than thoughtfully to any conversation including the pair. Still, we're talking about the two best players in the NBA, each transcendent in his sport for a number of reasons. And while I, like a lot of people, have been completely turned off by LeBron this summer (a process that started over the last couple seasons, actually), if he were a character in a novel, the events of the past weeks, with so much speculation about his nature as a player and person, would make his story more interesting.
And Lord knows Kobe's narrative is pretty compelling.
Putting the two of them together is basically unavoidable, so to do so in a thoughtful way is always appealing. I had the chance to do just that Friday afternoon in an extended conversation with writer J.R. Moehringer, who for GQ profiled Kobe back in March and this month authored the magazine's cover story on LeBron entitled "Three Weeks in Crazyville."
We covered a range of topics, from the process that led to "The Decision" and its horrendous execution (Moehringer was at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich that night, and said the trainwreck of a TV show wasn't half as uncomfortable as the atmosphere in the building), and Moehringer's interesting take on what LeBron was looking for in Miami (at approximately the 9:50 mark). We compare the personalities of Bryant and James, as well as the influences each had from as young players in the league (14:20), and what about Kobe's career arc could be instructive for James (22:00).
Approximately 30 minutes in, Moehringer and I discuss Kobe's moment of vulnerability after Game 7 of last season's Finals, and how compelling it will be to watch him play out this chapter in his career, still with gas left in the tank but far closer to the end than the beginning.
In some things we agree ("Twilight Kobe" is going to be completely fascinating), in others we don't (I think he's a little too easy on LBJ at times), but Moehringer has great insight and perspective, and it's refreshing to have a conversation about these two guys that doesn't involve yelling.
Click below for a few excerpts...
Q: Why did LeBron go to Cleveland?
I think it's clear that he's trying to recreate the happiest moment in his life, which was high school. For LeBron, high school was more than happy days, it was this golden time when he was the star on the best high school basketball team in America, one of the best high school basketball teams ever. They were pros in all but name. They were flying around the country, they were playing on ESPN, they were going into hotels and scores, if not hundreds of fans were waiting for them and hawking their autographs on the Internet. They were stars. They were like the Globetrotters of the high school world.
And, his teammates were his best friends. He's clearly trying to recreate that situation: To be on a "super team" that couldn't lose, and to be with buddies who had his back- that seems to be clearly his motivation.
It's also important to remember that when he was a kid growing up in the projects in Akron, he didn't know who his father was. It was just him and his mother, and many nights it was just him alone in some horrible apartment, not knowing when or if she would ever come home. Nine years old hearing gunfire and sirens, abjectly and completely alone. It was at that moment in his life, around nine years old, that he found basketball. It provided his security blanket, his sense of safety. ANy joy that he had came from basketball.
You put all these things together and he's trying to grasp at this kind of safety, security, happiness again. He's trying to re-create on the basketball court some of the joy that he's had in the past. I think basketball when he got to the pros, when he got in Cleveland, it probably became a business and a grind. Not everything in Cleveland went the way it was supposed to go. And so I just think that this an attempt for him to be happy as much as it is an attempt for him to win.
Q: Contrast LeBron's need to be around friends and protected with Kobe's persona, which is of a guy who is more on his own island. What similarities and differences do you see between the two?
A: The similarity that jumps out at you is each is a prodigy. Each guy went straight from high school, straight from being the most touted high school player in the country to the pros. But whereas I think that LeBron puts personal relationships first and gives a great deal of thought to who's around him, what the combination of people is around him, not only on the court but off, I don't think Kobe thinks about that as much. I think Kobe thinks about basketball. First, last, and always. He thinks about basketball when he wakes up, and he thinks about it when he goes to sleep. He plays with an anger that has been missing from LeBron's game. Maybe LeBron will find that anger now that he's said he's taking mental notes of all the criticism being aimed at him.
But I think the thing that the thing that jumps out at you about both is that their beginnings are very similar in the sense they were both prodigies, but their games are so different. Their personalities are so different. And even though each one in his own way is isolated from the world, it's a different kind of isolation. I think of [Kobe] all the time, alone in that helicopter flying to Staples Center, just him and the pilot. Whereas LeBron is isolated inside his group of tight friends. High school teammates. That's a very different kind of isolation.
On the value of winning: "[Kobe and LeBron are both] high maintenance [personalities], and we allow them to be as long as they win... So much of the criticism they get for being high maintenance is determined by how much they win. Kobe has always been Kobe, but the stuff that he used to get criticized for has really fallen away now that he's won five rings. I wonder if LeBron will get the same benefit. If he wins multiple championships in Miami, will people forgive him his narcissism, his diva qualities? And I think so."
On Kobe and his moment of vulnerability after Game 7: "I think we don't know, and when we do know we forget, the toll that the game takes on these bodies. They're already genetically peculiar, to be that large and that lithe and that fluid. Then you have them running night after night- running hard- pounding up and down those hardwood floors. We think of basketball as the opposite of football. It's non-contact, or somehow we just give it a pass. We forget what a violent game it is...
...That's what I heard in those postgame comments."
On this chapter of Kobe's career:"...I think in the next few years, it's going to be at least as compelling a story- the twilight of Kobe's career- as much as this new era in Miami. How many rings are left in that body? How many rabbits can he and Phil pull out of a hat? How Kobe closes this remarkable career is as at least as interesting to me as the next phase of LeBron's career."