There was a time when Kobe Bryant was a premier athlete in this league. But even in his prime he would never compare to the Paul Bunyan-esque physical attributes of LeBron James. However, physical features are not the biggest difference between Kobe and LeBron.
In fact, they're similar in many ways. They're both alpha dogs on their conference leading teams. They're the two most popular players in the league. And this marks the fourth year of "Kobe or LeBron" discussions, with LeBron taking the lion's share of the votes this season.
The "greatest player in the world" discussion is saved for a rare few, but Kobe and LeBron have owned it for years. So how did they get here?
Kobe earned it.
LeBron was handed it.
LeBron was last year's MVP and will continue that trend, not just this year, but for many years to come. His team once again leads the league in regular season wins. And if "the best player in the world" means putting up numbers and dunks right out of a video game, he's got that title locked up.
But if it means something more, then has there ever been a player so universally acclaimed that has done so little? That is LeBron's life. The NBA's golden boy before he ever stepped onto an NBA court. "The King" before attaining his first win.
It's old news that Kobe is the most polarizing figure in sports. Coming out of high school it was love him or hate him, but thirteen-years later those who hated Kobe now respect him. They respect his legendary work ethic. They respect his accomplishments.
Kobe has earned every shred of begrudged respect there is for him.
He had to rebuild himself time and time again. First overcoming selfishness and aloofness early in his career. Then the Colorado sexual-assault case. Then the messy divorce with Shaquille O'Neal that rocked Los Angeles. Then his own trade demand.
He moved past it all. He answered by winning. He started the 2007-08 season by getting boo'd in his own arena. He finished that season with 20,000 fans enthusiastically chanting three letters as he received the MVP award.
No one rises up again and again like Bryant.
He's rebuilt himself throughout his career. When he felt like he was getting pushed around on the court, he put on muscle. When he felt he could be more explosive and quicker, he shed excess weight.
He returns every season, honed and increasingly perfected.
When Kobe was developing his jumper he'd spend his offseason making 2,000 shots a day. Not taking. Making.
With one ball and one rebounder, Kobe can make 500 shots in about 60 minutes. Then he scored 81 points in one game. Or at least 50 in four consecutive games. Or seven game-winning shots this season. The fruit of hundreds of thousands of made jump shots in an empty gym when he's off the clock.
His work ethic and training habits have allowed him to outlast his contemporaries—Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady. Talented players who would have achieved so much more if they had pushed themselves. But no one pushes themselves harder than Kobe.
The Trailblazers came and went. The Kings came and went. The Spurs aren't great. The Celtics were great for one year. Kobe is still great. He's outlasted every rival.
Phil Jackson called him the most skilled player he's ever seen. Even a begrudged Shaquille O'Neal admitted that he never had a teammate that worked as hard as Kobe, who he described as "borderline possessed" about working out each day. It's no wonder that tandem didn't work out. Kobe could never empathize with Shaq's half-hearted efforts. Their relationship had an expiration date from the moment they shook hands.
Kobe never wanted to be a global icon. Just the best ball player. And he became so great that even the coldest skeptics had to love him.
Scoop Jackson summed it up:
"Kobe could give a damn what you think about him. As long as there’s a hardwood court, a rock, and 48 minutes, he’ll go out there and do whatever necessary to win, on both sides of the ball. But LeBron wants to know what you think about him. He needs it, to validate his growing perception of his status among the best players. He feeds off the crowd, and plays to your expectations."
LeBron is an entertainer. Time will tell if he'll have a career like Shaq's, which was good enough to win four championships on talent alone, but never reaching his ceiling. The liquid nitrogen that runs through Kobe's veins is born in the chilling depths of adversity. LeBron mimics it, but that steely determination cannot be taught.
It was Kobe's presence on Team USA that upped the ante. While LeBron "led through his words and actions at practice and on the team bus," Chris Sheridan reported, "Bryant led through his work ethic." Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron got a firsthand view of Kobe's workout. The impression was lasting.
All three of those players have elevated their games. The rest of the league is feeling the ripple effect of that summer together.
And although he had only generated bronze medals, LeBron proclaimed himself the leader of that team. Yet it was Kobe who set the tone and focus that summer. And when it came to crunch time, the rest of the squad looked to the most accomplished player on the court.
Sheridan continues, "So James and Bryant remain rivals in many ways. People close to James say it bothered him that Bryant was the one getting the lion's share of the rock star treatment in China, and it had to come as a surprise to James that the Madison Square Garden crowd did not rally behind him in anything even remotely resembling the way it had showered Bryant with affection [during his 61-point performance]."
Kobe had earned the respect of the Madison Square Garden crowd. He earned the respect of Team USA. He has earned your and my respect.
So let's nix the LeBron talk until he accomplishes something great. He has a fantastic chance of doing it this June. Most likely against Kobe himself. And when he does finally beat the best player in the world, he'll have earned the title for himself.