- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The puppets have long since been put out to whatever pasture puppets are retired to when it's clear their time has passed.
At this point, if it happens at all, the "rivalry" between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will have to come about organically; the NBA schedule-makers and slick marketing machines have long since grown tired of coaxing it along.
James has thus far proved to be an unworthy challenger, both in competitive character and accomplishment. For a few years Bryant played along with the idea that King James would and could challenge him. Now he just seems bored by it all. The way Bryant goaded James for passing up shots at the end of last week's All-Star Game was statement enough.
"I wanted him to try to score. I wanted that challenge. I was more upset than anything that I didn't get a chance to ... to face that," Bryant explained.
He was talking about the end of an All-Star Game. But he might as well been talking about the rivalry that never really has existed between James and himself.
As great a player as he undoubtedly is, James has never taken it to Bryant on or off the court, never challenged him, never even seemed like he wanted to in the way Bryant did with Michael Jordan in his first All-Star Game, in 1998 at Madison Square Garden
Asked by a reporter leading up to the game whether Jordan might try sending a message to him, Bryant laughed and said, "Maybe, but I want to send him a message that I don't back down from anybody."
And so, the first time down the floor, a young Bryant -- who was chosen by fans as a starter before he even became a starter for the Lakers -- called out, "I got Mike, I got Mike." Though Jordan ended up as the MVP of that game with 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists, by the end of it Bryant (who finished with 18 points in limited minutes) had clearly earned his respect.
"I'll see you down the line," Jordan said to Bryant at the end of the game. Bryant nodded, and said, like a 19-year-old kid would, "Cool."
It's never wise to say "never" about things like this. James's DNA isn't changing, but he could eventually grow enough from his experiences to become a more worthy rival.
Instead of waiting for that to happen, though, maybe it's a good moment to consider whether we've all been looking in the wrong place for Bryant's challenger.
Bryant laughed when Dwyane Wade's name was brought up Friday night toward the end of a long discussion in which he reminded us that he's chasing history and championships, not fending off contemporary challengers.
"Too young. Too young," Bryant said dismissively. "When I came in the league, he [Wade] was in elementary school."
When it was pointed out that their overlap is actually pretty substantial -- Wade is 30 and has been in the NBA since 2003, Bryant is 33 and has been in the NBA since 1996 -- he still didn't want to bite.
"Not in terms of what I'm chasing," Bryant said. "What I have left to accomplish, those players retired a long time ago."
Bryant's right, of course.
Like Jordan, he will eventually retire as the best player of his generation, without a true rival. It's disappointing in a way, but it's where he is and will be, and Bryant has long since learned to live with it.
As longtime teammate Derek Fisher put it -- at least metaphorically, "He doesn't need another reason to do what he does. Everybody's his rival. I don't think he needs to put a face on it. He's an assassin and he looks to kill everyone in front of him. That's just what it is."
But something about the way Wade has come at him over the years suggests that amongst all of Bryant's contemporaries, Wade -- and not James -- is the player who comes closest to having the mental and physical makeup to challenge him.
"The most ferocious [teammate] was Kobe," Shaquille O'Neal said in a 2009 Sporting News interview. "Fiercest, most competitive, it was Kobe. D-Wade is second after that."
Much was made this week about Wade's hard foul in the All-Star Game that broke Bryant's nose and left him concussed. But that's actually not the clue that offers the biggest window into Wade's soul. It was what he did at the end of the game -- it was Wade who finally took the last shot -- and what he said afterward that drove home the point.
"Tonight, he does what he normally does," Wade said of Bryant. "He got 27. He's Kobe Bryant. He scores the ball."
If that's not laying it on thick, compare it to what Wade said after Bryant was named the MVP of the 2007 All-Star Game in Las Vegas.
"You could tell early on that he was being aggressive," Wade said then. "You can always tell what guys have that mentality that night to go for the MVP by how aggressive they are with shooting the ball."
It's not exactly calling out, "I got Kobe, I got Kobe" on the first trip down the floor, like Bryant did with Jordan all those years ago, but Wade is coming at Bryant nonetheless.
James might not want to take him on, Wade does.
And it's not hard to understand why. At this point it's obvious to everyone involved that Wade is the Heat's alpha and James is their beta. Wade attacks, James distributes. When there's a shot at the end of the game, Wade wants it. James, um, makes what is technically the right basketball play (like on Friday when LBJ deferred to Udonis Haslem and the Heat lost.)
It's more than that, though. Almost six years ago, when Wade and O'Neal teamed up to lead the Heat to the 2006 NBA title, it seemed like the beginning of the Dwyane Wade era in the NBA. He and the Heat were in position to win multiple titles, Bryant was leading the league in scoring but still trying to win with the Kwame Browns and Smush Parkers of the world.
Wade even led the NBA in jersey sales from the middle of 2005 through the middle of 2007, while Kobe was asking for a trade to Pluto.
But when the Lakers came through and traded for Pau Gasol in 2008, Kobe was resurrected. His team would win two of the next three titles while Wade was out on an island until LeBron and Chris Bosh decided to join him in Miami in 2010.
It is far too late for Wade and Bryant to develop the kind of rivalry Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had throughout the 1980s. But you get the feeling that, after all these years, it feels good to be in someone's sights.
"If somebody wants to be Kobe's rival, he would welcome it," Metta World Peace said. "Just talk up and he would welcome it. But until that comes, he's not going to wait. Either you're there and you want it, or he'll do it himself."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.
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