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The previous summer in New Jersey, Bryant spoke before a group of prep stars that included James at ABCD Camp. James, now a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary, scored 36 points in a game against Oak Hill Academy at a tournament in nearby Trenton, N.J., while wearing a special American flag-themed pair of Bryant's signature shoes that Bryant had personally delivered to him.
Two nights later, Bryant scored 31 against Michael Jordan and the East All-Stars on his way to being named MVP of the game.
Although one was an NBA superstar and the other still in high school, there was, from their early meetings, a connection between them. As the first guard to successfully make the jump from high school to the NBA, Bryant had created a path James would follow half a dozen years later.
|It was James' big night, but Bryant made news, as well.|
But James' handshake with commissioner David Stern was upstaged that day by breaking news during the broadcast that Bryant planned to opt out of his contract with the Lakers and seek free agency after the next season."I just remember LeBron's draft day," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said this week. "Kobe had something that went on there, didn't he? He kind of overplayed it. He took the headlines away from LeBron, in a way." Jackson paused for a moment. "I think he had him in his sights right off the bat." Until that night, Bryant was the game's brightest young star and James was the aspiring player waiting in the wings, but Kobe didn't even wait for James to suit up to signal that the game between them was on.
|The two superstars are friends as well as rivals.|
James, still 23 years old, had just completed his fifth season in the league with just one NBA Finals loss (a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs) to show for it.They needed one another.
Bryant learned from James' inclusive ways as a teammate during that camp and became better at making everyone else feel part of the group.
James learned from Bryant's lone-wolf ways and became more committed to making himself a better player before and after practice, when no other teammates were around."There's a mutual respect that we have for one another," Bryant said in the interview they gave that day (a joint interview so rare that is has more than 2.7 million views on the NBA's YouTube channel). "It's that level of respect that enables us to perform at a high level when we compete against each other." Bryant complimented LeBron's athleticism: "He takes off like he's jumping off a trampoline off of one leg. It's the most ridiculous one-legged takeoff I've seen. It's crazy." James complimented Kobe's command: "His midrange jumper is by far one of the best that we have, if not the best, that we have in our league. Two dribble, pump fake, reverse spin, shot. Yeah, I watch it [laughing]. Yeah, I study it."
|LeBron supplanted Kobe as league MVP. Think that motivated Bryant much?|
It was the first time James received the honor, and it would end Bryant's reign as league MVP for the 2007-08 season.
Reporters waited around the Lakers practice facility that day for Bryant to emerge from the training room and share his thoughts on James winning the award. He never came out, but a person Kobe did talk to that day remembers him saying, "I'll see [him] in the Finals."Bryant didn't question James' deserving the award or praise him for winning it, but he did show James the ultimate respect, assuming the younger star would lift his team past all the East had to offer and promising he would be there to face him.
But in a news conference before tipoff, the conversation strayed from Kobe vs. Paul Pierce and steered toward LeBron when a reporter asked Stern what he thought about James appearing on "Larry King Live" the night before. "It sort of tells me that our players have, through their hard work, captured the imagination of many, many people," Stern said drily. It took James seven years, but he got Bryant back just a little for stealing the spotlight on his draft night. Maybe he learned from the best.
|They have squared off on Christmas before, but the real treat would be to see them in the NBA Finals.|
James' Cleveland Cavaliers came into Staples Center and embarrassed the Lakers 102-87 last year.
Is there a score to settle this time?"I think for players that have been in the league for a long time, when you have a fresh or a new influx of talented guys that are A-list guys, so to speak, I think you acknowledge the fact that they are that good," said Lakers assistant Chuck Person, a Bryant confidant. "You embrace the fact and look forward to continuing to test your mettle against the up-and-coming players." More years have gone for Bryant, a 15-year veteran, than will come in the future. James, in his eighth season, might not have hit the halfway point yet. Bryant knows he can never get back the gravity-defying prowess he once had, an athleticism James flashes seemingly without effort. He will have to match James in some other way, with some other skill, on Saturday (and no doubt down the line again soon). He will pit his champion's experience and will against the challenger's power and hunger.
"I think it's always the push and pull, the oil and vinegar, so to speak when you're talking about skill versus athleticism," Person said. "I think that's what you have when you have a young guy versus a guy that's been in the league 10, 12, 15 years."
|Kobe's focus is, as always, on the next challenge, the next run at a ring.|