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Thursday, December 24, 2009
Kobe vs. LeBron: Does it matter and why?

By Andy Kamenetzky


Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
You tell us. Are these guys really rivals?




To some degree, "Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James" doesn't actually matter to Lakers fans. At all. Sure, a large portion don't care for LeBron's ugly mug and don't appreciate when other fans suggest that The King is a better baller than the Mamba. Or when the media suggests he's a better teammate. Or when David Stern suggests he could go down as G.O.A.T. Yeah, those things don't sit particularly well with Kobe's faithful. But nonetheless, many don't consider that a "Kobe vs. LeBron" thing, because the issue isn't really "about" James at all. He's just a symbol, the latest embodiment of what appears a staunch effort by haters, media and the NBA itself to prevent Bryant's obvious goal: Being considered the best to ever lace 'em up. And frankly, as comments pulled from our Facebook Page show, some fans are plain sick of it.

PODCAST
Andy and Brian discuss Kobe and LeBron's "rivalry" and the approach behind their marketing campaigns with Chris Raih, Managing Director of Zambezi, a creative agency that works with both superstars.

Podcast Listen

Having lived in L.A. since 1990 and passionately followed the Lakers from the mid-90's on (I still consider myself every bit "Laker fan" as "Laker scribe"), I've hardly known a purple and gold world that didn't include and/or center around Kobe Bryant. And no matter what world I've been a part of, I can't recall an athlete that's prompted a reaction so polarizing. (Full disclosure: I have no "problems" with Kobe on a personal level, where our relationship has always been cordial if purely professional, but as a player, he's definitely frustrated me as often as he's left me breathless. Over the last few years, however, it's been almost entirely "Column B.") But beyond the divisiveness, what's always struck me is the passion Kobe's believers put forth on his behalf. It's somewhere between worship and flat out zealotry, often defensive at a minute's notice. I've been chided for my deep seated "hatred" of Kobe in response to posts I've written selling his virtues as MVP. Fans are continually on the lookout for backhanded compliments or subtle digs, rarely willing to let a compliment stand. It's truly a protective mindset.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
For a while, Kobe's personality and intensity seemed to run more people the wrong way than right.



Truth be told, oversensitivity is often at play. I'm being 100% honest when I say the world isn't out to get Kobe -- it's actually out to get me, but that's neither here nor there -- and certainly not at the moment. Some fans (and media, too) haven't recognized the reality of Kobe's drastically improved image. On the other hand, Kobe's career is undeniably been tagged with a never-ending string of qualifiers. "Sure, Kobe's got three rings, but he's never won a title without Shaq... Sure, he scored 81 points, but if Michael Jordan had played in an era without hand checking, he'd have scored 82+ easily... Sure, I'd score that many points if I never gave up the ball." (In the meantime, nobody punished Magic for playing with Kareem or was obsessed for quite so long with tracking Jordan's shot count.) Factor in a persona not always inherently likable (some tabbed it flat out "unlikable") the Colorado backlash, plus some legitimately alienating behavior at times and for a while, Kobe's back was mainly gotten by the die hards. It was a full time job and not a particularly fun one, but the soldiers aren't about to surrender. As Lakers fan Brett-Patrick J. puts it, "Kobe's fan base is passionate about defending Kobe because we've spent the last twelve years listening to everyone in the league repeatedly bash Kobe over for a multitude of reasons that ultimately proved to be wrong."

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
There are Kobe fans who consider this handshake the start of a grand marketing conspiracy.



I hadn't thought about it for a long time (if much at all, really), but LeBron entered the league during the exact season Kobe dealt with his legal issues in Colorado. That ultimately thematic timing couldn't have been better for the league -- in need a "face," and a legitimately great player at that -- nor worse for Kobe, in terms of the "race" to catch Jordan. James, along with Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony were pumped as the next big things. Rightfully so, because they blossomed into elite players. But their rise also came during a time when Kobe's star dimmed and his franchise being rebuilt. By the time a squad emerged worthy of Kobe's talents, the young guns had been treated as MJ's heirs for a few seasons, which is a hard habit to break.

Not that competition for Jordan's crown is a bad thing, of course.  Nor do I believe league honchos were actually "conspiring" to keep Kobe down, especially because of any "personal" distaste for him. But it's also doesn't look right when Kobe is seemingly playing "catch up," especially with more rings and accomplishments than the other fellas combined. 24 fans felt like the league invested so much in pumping the kids that stopping wasn't an option. Thus, the youngsters (and Steve Nash) became marketed as Kobe's "rivals," whether for rings, supremacy of the league, or even ownership of history. Great for them. Crappy for Kobe, now "fending off" challengers when an argument could be made that MJ's the one who oughta be shaking in his boots. Asking Kobe to "wait his turn" while teamed with a Shaq-in-his prime was one thing. But asking the dude to allow everyone cuts is quite another.


Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe has few reasons not to smile these days.



Ironically, as "Kobe v. LeBron" approaches, we're reminded of a world turning "Bizarro", with the superstar's images trending in opposite directions. Bryant's calender year alone included a title, jersey sales through the roof, even an adorable puppet alter ego. All developments drilling home how his polarizing days are pretty much over to anyone aware it's no longer 2005. If the current version of Kobe were a movie, he'd be "The Dark Knight," a classic "critical and commercial" success.

In the meantime, Kobe's partner-in-puppetdom is discovering the court of public opinion doesn't decide "not guilty." Refusing to shake hands after getting dispatched in the Eastern Conference Finals, since it's not what a "winner" does (even though, technically speaking, he was the loser). Letting a college kid's mild facial turn into a posterizing controversy. Sideline dances that drew Joakim Noah's ire. Sure, "beat him and there's no dancing," but it's still behavior that's beneath someone of his stature. If you're truly a "winner," act like you've been there before. Even Chris Raih, the Managing Partner of Zambezi (a creative agency working with Bryant and James), told us in our PodKast that despite average fans not likely downplaying LeBron's credentials an iota without a championship, "it wouldn't hurt the case for some rings to start popping up." Throw in how the King clearly relished the attention focused on 2010, and it's an interesting time for LeBron. Fame includes more scrutiny than usual and The Chosen One, formerly impervious to missteps, is suddenly stumbling over his feet every now and then.

How ironic would it be if the best person to offer James advice on appearing bulletproof was Kobe Bryant?