Kobe Bryant through LeBron's eyes

Row after row of tall teenagers dressed in matching sweat suits and shoes, wearing ID cards around their necks, stared at Kobe Bryant as he tried, ironically, to talk them into going to college.

It was a muggy day in the summer of the 2001 in northern New Jersey. Bryant was less than three weeks off winning his second Finals.

His head was full of hair, his smile boyish and he probably had the admiration, or at least the envy, of 220 of the best high school basketball players in the country.

There were more than a dozen future NBA players in the room that day, including lanky prospects like Carmelo Anthony, Charlie Villanueva and Chris Bosh and fresh-faced kids such as Raymond Felton, Sebastian Telfair and Deron Williams.

Bryant was the week's keynote speaker at the first major event of the ABCD Camp, the shoe company-sponsored prep meat market that used to be held annually at the modest Farleigh-Dickinson University.

"I don't remember anything he said," LeBron James said this week, smiling at the memory of being player No. 155 and a pimple-faced 16-year-old right in the middle of a growth spurt that summer.

"I was a young cat. I was just staring at him."

They've both come a long way since then and not just because they have their own Nike puppets and MVP trophies.

Now, for the second consecutive year, they are the centerpiece attraction on the NBA's biggest regular season stage: the featured game on Christmas Day, when they face off at 5 p.m. on ABC.

That fact alone means James is no longer just a face in the crowd. But it doesn't mean that James has lost the viewpoint he had of Bryant before he became a worldwide contemporary. Bryant is still standing at the head of the class that James longs to distance himself from.

"When I was in high school I looked up to him," James said. "I knew at the time that it was possible for me to do what he had done. And what he had done at such a young age in the NBA was unbelievable."

James' opinion of Bryant nine years ago was that of awe. On several fronts, Bryant had blazed a trail that James was about to turn into his own personal superhighway. James was aware to a degree of it then, and now, with the help of maturation and perspective, he has a deeper understanding.

Bryant had done what James knew he was going to do: go to the NBA right after high school and do it as a perimeter player. There were other preps-to-pros success stories -- and failures, too -- from that era. Kevin Garnett, of course. There was Jermaine O'Neal. And two weeks before Bryant made his speech to James and other future stars, Kwame Brown had become the first player to be drafted No. 1 overall directly out of high school.

But those were all big men. Young big men have always been selected mostly because of their size, which was one skill that can't be developed. Bryant went to the NBA because his teenage talent overwhelmed more developed men at his position. So, eventually, did James.

"It is humbling to know that he's a peer of mine," James said. "It's a blessing."

Nearly a decade later, James' awe for Bryant has faded. That comes with playing on the same field and even the same team, as they did for two summers with Team USA. But James' respect for Bryant has never been greater.

Unlike Bryant, James did not have the fortune of going to a team that was filled with veterans, soon to be taken over by a Hall of Fame coach and joined by a Hall of Fame center. He can't relate to the rings that Bryant was starting to win when they first met.

But the Heat star certainly can understand what has happened over the past few years when Bryant cemented his place in history as James spun his wheels in frustration attempting to do more than just get to the same holiday marquee.

James made his first Finals in 2007. The same week James was single-handedly taking down the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals, Bryant was reacting to a second straight first-round exit by demanding a trade from the Lakers.

At that moment in time, the tables had turned. Bryant had some rings, but as the sole star, his teams had been a failure. Now it looked like James was the one being stared at by the class. It appeared there had been a change in power.

The three years since have been a reminder of just where Bryant's place is, and that James, in many respects, is still a striving pupil. James has had some great seasons and has even outplayed Bryant routinely in head-to-head matchups. James has even passed him in MVP trophies.

James[Bryant] is one of the best competitors we have in the league. He does whatever it takes to win games. I try to do the same.

-- LeBron James

But Bryant's amazing postseason successes continue to outstrip anything James has achieved.

That includes getting his teammates to rise to the occasion regularly over the past two title runs. It has again left James looking up to Bryant as he became frustrated in learning just how difficult it is to get to where Bryant has now been five times.

"Throughout my days of playing against him, being his teammate and going against him a lot, my impression has only risen," James said.

"He's one of the best competitors we have in the league. He does whatever it takes to win games. I try to do the same."

A huge part of that was James' move to Miami this past summer to play with what he hopes is the same type of cast that Bryant has helped win titles in Los Angeles.

Their rivalry, no matter what the marketing might be, is more out of a quest for a common goal than that of one-upmanship. Not unlike the challenge of becoming a first-round draft pick at the age of 18, only with higher stakes and greater rewards.

When Bryant talked about his success that day in New Jersey, he might not have fully appreciated how much work it was to get there, even though he'd been to the mountain. Now, after years of mentally taxing struggles, he clearly knows and it shows every spring.

When James reached the Finals in just his second trip to the postseason, he might not have fully appreciated how much work it took to get there, either.

Now, after years of watching Bryant again show him the way, James wants to get where Bryant is. Again.

"He does whatever it takes; he puts himself and his teammates in a position to win," James said. "He holds himself to a higher standard. I'm trying to do that."