"I didn't hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us, to meet in the Finals," James said Tuesday, looking back on the 2008-09 season when his Cleveland Cavaliers led the league with a 66-16 record and Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers were right behind him at 65-17. "I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, we wanted it. He held up his end and I didn't hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn't happen."
James and the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals 4-2, with the Lakers going on to beat the Magic in the championship round 4-1. With Bryant and the Pau Gasol-led Lakers hitting their stride at the same time James was on the top team in the East with Cleveland and later the Miami Heat, a Finals matchup seemed inevitable to observers. However, James said he never assumed it would occur.
"Obviously there was so much made about it, from commercials to media talk, to people just talking about the Lakers versus the Cavs, Kobe versus LeBron, Kobe versus LeBron, Kobe versus LeBron, but I couldn't do that to my teammates to kind of assume," James said. "That's not my job. I've seen the stat that since '07 either he has or I've been in the Finals, but we've never matched up. And that definitely sucks. Not only for us two being competitors, wanting to go against each other in the Finals, but also for the fans."
Indeed, Nike anticipated as much, centering an ad campaign around Bryant and James in puppet form jostling for NBA supremacy. Bryant played in the Finals from 2008 to 2010 and faced Boston twice and Orlando once. James played in the Finals from 2011 to 2015 and has played San Antonio (twice), Dallas, Oklahoma City and Golden State. While their paths never crossed with the Larry O'Brien Trophy on the line, James spoke openly about his shared history with Bryant dating back to his high school days. He looked up to Bryant as a trailblazer he could emulate as he skipped college and went straight to the professional ranks.
"I mean, in high school I wore a nappy-ass Afro because of Kobe Bryant," James said. "Because he wore it. I wanted to be just like him, man. And I always said my inspiration came from [Michael] Jordan, but I always thought Jordan was so out of this world that I could never get there. Kobe was someone that I just always kind of wanted to be like and play like."
James eventually became a teammate of Bryant's on Team USA, competing alongside one another in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. He said his most cherished memories of Bryant came with the "Redeem Team" in 2008.
"Late in the game it was a very close game," James said of the gold-medal contest against Spain. "Rudy Fernandez had just come down and made a really big bucket. They went zone on us and we needed to make a big bucket. We swung it around the horn, Kobe caught it on the left wing and shot a 3 with no thought about it. Got fouled, four-point play and we put the game away from that point on. That was pretty cool.
"The other game that was very inspiring and at the same time I knew he was on another level was during our first game we played Spain in '08 in the preliminary rounds. The first play of the game he ran through the chest of Pau Gasol and got a flagrant. And Pau Gasol was his teammate with the Lakers. I was like, 'Yeah, this guy is on another level.' Yeah. I loved it ... You guys can find that clip and you'll see what I'm talking about. It was one of the first plays of the game. I was like, 'This guy's all about winning and whoever he's playing for or who he's playing with at that point in time.' He really forgot Pau was his teammate. Like he really forgot that he was about to see him in like three weeks in L.A. I swear. It was crazy."
When speaking about Bryant extemporaneously Tuesday, James rattled off Bryant's complete resume down to his number of All-Star appearances (17). But his most revealing thoughts were about how Bryant inspired James to become the player he is today.
"It was someone that I always knew I had to be in the gym," James said. "I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant. I knew he was in the gym and I knew he was working on his game. And I knew he was great. So every day that I didn't want to work out or every day I felt like I couldn't give more, I always thought of Kobe. Because I knew that he was getting better and I was like, 'Man, if you take a day off, he's going to take advantage of it. You cannot take a day off. You cannot take a day off.' And I used him for my motivation throughout my career because I always knew that he was working on something. So, that part will be missed a little bit."
James said he already checked the Cavs' schedule to circle the final two chances he'll get to play Bryant (Feb. 10 at home, March 10 on the road).
"I think it'll be very emotional and very fun," James said. "Obviously I want to win and he wants to win, too. But some things about that will be much bigger than a win or a loss ... just to be able to see him and know it's his last go-round. I don't know. It won't really make sense next year when you see the Lakers and you don't see Kobe in a uniform. Twenty years, 13 out of my career. It's almost half of my life I've seen him in a Lakers uniform as a professional. It's going to be pretty weird."