In another century, they might be two ambitious princes, with eyes on expanding their empires and solidifying their legacies. Instead, they are two NBA superstars, with eyes on expanding their empires and solidifying their legacies.
Yet their princely stature is present. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James reign over the Western and Eastern portions of the basketball nation, respectively. They were the two most incandescent stars of the U.S. men's basketball team's gold-medal effort at the Beijing Olympics. They went into that derby with mutual respect and emerged as great friends.
But each goes into the 2009 NBA playoffs with a lust for power that negates the niceties of international all-star teamwork. Bryant has three rings, but none without the help of nemesis-turned-Twitterer Shaquille O’Neal. James has a considerable amount of jewelry, but no gaudy hunks of gold with "NBA Champions" on them.
They are both on a quest, but only one can survive. If this sounds like a reality show in which the contestants go to any lengths to get the big prize, it is.
Bryant has been on a crusade to win a Shaq-less title. He won’t admit it, of course. He won’t acknowledge that he has a blank space on his resume. He won’t concede that the three championship teams he was on were not Kobe-centric. He might even deny that Shaq ever existed, at least as a Lakers teammate.
But hoop sleuths can put together the pieces. When Kobe was a free agent in 2004, he re-signed with Los Angeles only after Shaq was traded to Miami, and Phil Jackson was let go as head coach. That was an admission by Lakers' brass that Kobe demanded to be The Man, and owner Jerry Buss and his underlings agreed to those terms.
Kobe also blew up in the spring of 2007 in the now-infamous radio talk show tour, during which he ripped the Lakers for not doing enough to build a championship team. Translation: I came back to lead a team to a title on my own, and I’m not happy.
Since then, he has been a model citizen, leader and teammate, helped in no small part by a masterful rebuilding of the roster by general manager Mitch Kupchak. The piece de resistance was the heist of Pau Gasol from Memphis in exchange for a bag of pretzels (a.k.a., Kwame Brown). After falling short in last year’s NBA Finals to a superior and more experienced Boston Celtics squad, the Lakers are now poised to help Kobe achieve his regal aspirations.
Meanwhile in Cleveland, LeBron wallows in a prison of endorsement deals and non-championship adoration. He is really King James in the East, and his every move is chronicled as closely as if he were a head of state. In a way, he is.
The Cleveland Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. The Cleveland Browns haven’t won an NFL title since 1964. The Cavaliers have never won an NBA crown. The city would gladly trade the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a landmark to be named later for one measly championship. Since it can’t do that, and since the Indians and Browns are not favored to win titles in their upcoming seasons, the people of Cleveland are looking to LeBron James to lead them.
Whereas Kobe is eager to further cement his reputation in the already championship-rich folklore of the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron carries the expectations and pressures of Cleveland’s huddled masses yearning for a parade.
Right now it looks good. The Cavaliers secured the NBA’s best record. And the Celtics have stumbled a bit. Chances are Gang Green will be fit and focused when the playoffs begin; life as defending champions tends to be riddled with potholes and hindrances during the tortuously long regular season, but when the postseason starts and the end is visible, champions tend to rediscover their mojo.
There are also challenges to LeBron’s notion of manifest destiny in the East from the likes of the Orlando Magic, and to a lesser extent, the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks. Chances are, though, that the Cavs and Celtics will brawl in the Eastern Conference finals, and Cleveland will enjoy the home-court advantage — the Cavs have lost only once on their home floor this season.
If the Lakers can thrash their way through a daunting collection of possible Western Conference playoff aspirants — the Utah Jazz might be particularly nettlesome, while the Trail Blazers, although not deemed ready for the big enchilada quite yet, are almost impossible for the Lakers to beat in Portland — it could set up a marketer’s dream scenario:
Kobe versus LeBron, for the whole thing.
That Finals would create an entirely new dynamic to their friendship/rivalry. If Kobe won, he would then be a four-time champion as well as the acknowledged Greatest Player on Earth. He would have all the power and all the glory — and as far as power is concerned, remember that he can opt out of his contract after this season. He could opt out as leader of the defending champions and make the Lakers squirm before signing a maximum deal.
If LeBron won, then he would not only have his Holy Grail while providing the fans of Cleveland with boundless joy, he could also say that he, as unquestioned leader, led his team to a championship while Kobe, as unquestioned leader, wasn’t able to do so. And after winning the crown, if LeBron and his minions are extra audacious, they might even pillage Kobe’s "Greatest Player" standing.
There are many scenarios that would ensure a satisfying NBA Finals matchup this year. But only one that matches Kobe and LeBron would promise the high drama that comes when royalty duels with royalty.