INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- LeBron James declined to speak to the media Monday, a day after Kobe Bryant announced this would be his final season with a poem on The Players' Tribune. Perhaps James simply needed more time to gather his thoughts about the Los Angeles Lakers superstar. James opened up about Bryant on Tuesday, speaking from the heart and off the cuff for more than 10 minutes after a Cleveland Cavaliers shootaround.
The following is a transcript of James' complete thoughts on Bryant.
Q: What was your reaction to Bryant's announcement?
James: It was kind of sad, actually. You know, just, obviously it was going to happen to everybody at some point, but to know that this is Kobe’s last year. It’s just sad, man, and the guy’s just had a hell of a career.
I mean, what he’s done for me and my career, is all the way from when I was a kid, to having his posters on my wall when I was growing up, to my junior year in high school when we played in a tournament in New Jersey, and I think the All-Star game was in Philly, I got an opportunity to go and meet him, and he gave me a pair of his shoes to wear in a game against Oak Hill, actually against Carmelo [Anthony], my junior and senior season, to me being a rookie. I think one of our first home games was against the Lakers and just playing against him, was like a dream come true for me because being a kid that came straight out of high school too, it was like, Kobe, T-Mac [Tracy McGrady], KG [Kevin Garnett] -- it was those guys you kind of looked up to. Kobe being at the ABCD Camp talking to us and I was a 15-year-old kid that didn’t know much, listening to Kobe at the time and him doing great things.
I mean, in high school I wore a nappy-ass Afro because of Kobe Bryant. 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.
And then, just being a competitor. He took me to that next level, and understanding how important competition is and just have a willingness to never die. And you may lose a game, but you’re always going to win every battle, man, and win the war, things of that nature. You get that all from Kobe, just competing against him every year.
I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us, to meet in the Finals. 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.
To us becoming teammates at the Olympics in 2008 and also in '12, you know finally being on the same floor with him as a teammate, just seeing his work ethic and seeing how he carries himself every single day. Someone I always wanted to work out with in the summertime, putting my heart into it with him and just seeing everything that he accomplished, everything that he went through. He always left it all out on the floor, so it’s kind of emotional for me it coming to an end for him because he’s just someone I’ve always looked up to, someone I truly have gained great respect for, not only as a competitor but as a friend, now. It’s something I could sit here and talk for an hour and a half and talk about it because I’ve got so many memories of personal things with him.
And then, the 81-point game, you know, the -point game at the end of the third. The game winner against Phoenix on the right wing. The tip dunk against Indiana. The behind-the-back 360 dunk against Denver at the Staples Center. I could go on and on just watching him. I was lucky because he played in the Western Conference his whole career, and I’ve been in the Eastern Conference my whole career, so I could always go home and watch him play after my game. And to this day, you guys hear me say, "I’m going home to watch Bean play." To know that it’s coming to an end is truly sad for me.
Q: You said you don't like to compare greats, but where does Bryant rank?
James: It was someone that I always knew I had to be in the gym. 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.
Q: How has your relationship with Bryant evolved?
James: I think he saw being [an Olympic] teammate of mine in '08 and '12 how much I put in the game as well. And the respect just rolled after that point. We’ve always competed against one another, and we always wanted to dethrone each other. But we always had that mutual respect because we knew how much we put into the game. I’ve always voiced my opinion about Kobe, how great Kobe is, and obviously there will never be another one of him in our league. Ever.
Q: Did you assume that a Finals matchup would happen when you were younger?
James: I couldn’t assume anything. I never assumed it. Obviously there was so much made about it from commercials to media talk to people just talking about the Lakers vs. the Cavs, Kobe vs. LeBron, Kobe vs. LeBron, Kobe vs. LeBron, but I couldn’t do that to my teammates to kind of assume. That’s not my job. I 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.
James: I think he’s perceived as one of the most fierce competitors, a five-time champion, a two-time Finals MVP, 17 All-Star appearances. I think the media has done a great job of building Kobe as who he is today. There’s no reason for me to say that the media has made him look a certain way. Throughout his career he’s done unbelievable things, and part of the reason why he’s as big as he is because obviously the work he’s put into it but also the coverage that we all get from you guys. So I don’t see it that way, and I don’t really get involved in that side of things, but I don’t see it that way.
Q: What will your last two games against Bryant be like?
James: I think it’ll be very emotional and very fun. 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. I actually looked on the calendar last night to see when we play them both games. 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.
Q: Will Bryant potentially playing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio affect your decision to play?
James: Nah it won’t. I don’t think it’ll affect it. For me I honestly have to worry about my situation when it comes to that. I understand he wants to be part of the team. Any time you get an opportunity to play with a legend or a great like Kobe Bryant or whoever it is, you always hope that you're a part of it.
Q: What's your most memorable game with Kobe?
James: I would say our gold medal game in '08 against Spain was probably one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played with him. That was a really tough game for our team. It was our "Redeem Team," and late in the game it was a very close game. 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. I mean, he wasn’t my teammate, but I was like -- 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.
"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.
The Lakers are suffering through their worst three seasons since moving to Los Angeles 55 years ago. But with Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement at the end of the season, the team now has the clarity it needs to prepare for a future without Bryant.
Since the Lakers' hopes for a sixth championship with Bryant were dashed by his Achilles injury in April 2013, followed by Dwight Howard's departure for the Houston Rockets that summer, the franchise has been stuck in an awkward purgatory -- caught between trying to stay competitive in Bryant's golden years and developing young talent to eventually supplant him.
Now, the organization can fully commit to building the next great Lakers team. Here's what that should entail in six steps, some of them easier than others: