Kobe vs. LeBron Isn’t A Rivalry

Photo by dospaz from Flickr

“I think people need to lay off that kid, that’s what I think. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well playing on the Olympic team, and I think they just need to back up off him and just let him play and let him live his life. Let him make his decisions, let him mature as a player.

“It’s tough to be under a microscope like that all the time. So I would like everyone to just back off him and let him play.”

via ESPN – Kobe Talks Next Season, If There Is One

Rivalries are one of the more illustrious sports-driven narratives. Good vs. evil, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, and city vs. city are some of the most intense, blood-bubbling causations behind sports best rivalries. I’m not going to to list them all, but we all know the main ones; Duke vs. North Carolina, UCLA vs. USC, Ohio St.vs. Michigan, Lakers vs. Celtics, Red Sox vs. Yankees, Bears vs. Packers, etc.

The authenticity of rivalries is that they occur naturally. They’re formed through countless battles, competitiveness, and epic defeat, ultimately leading to the two counterparts having “sports hate” towards each other. In NBA history, the greatest player rivalry was likely Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain (possibly because of sheer volume). The two met 14 times per season on average (an amazing number in retrospect), with Russell usually coming away the winner in both the regular season and playoffs. Russell, the shorter and less talented player, outworked and outsmarted Chamberlain, using tenacity, his defensive prowess, willpower and determination to his advantage; the narrative was driven by its hard work vs. God-given talent nature.

On paper, though, there may be an even better player rivalry in Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Bird and Magic faced off in the NCAA championship game, came into the league as rookies together, won eight of the decades’ ten titles, played somewhat similar styles of ‘unselfish’ basketball, and retired from the NBA at the same time. Boston (blue collar town) vs. L.A. (Hollywood, celebrities, etc.), white vs. black, fundamentals vs. flash, and country vs. hip-hop were some of the factors that made the Bird-Magic rivalry one of the most iconic in sports’ history. If there was ever a “true” rivalry, they’re respective career timelines embodied it.

Sometimes, though, rivalries are forced onto us by the media, particular fans, or the perceived rivals themselves. The classic case of this has been LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant. Despite the seven year age and career difference and variance in their styles of play, Bryant and James have been constantly compared circa 2006 (and picking up steam in 2008), when both were unanimously the league’s two most complete (swingmen) players.

Yet to call this a rivalry is moronic, as the rivalry doesn’t feel natural. Neither player has true disdain for each other (or have been incessant encounters versus each other), a key ingredient to a rivalry. Bryant and James compliment each other at every turn (as seen by Kobe’s defense of James above; he doesn’t need to criticize him, but defending him doesn’t help the ‘rivalry’), except here, and have never had a public battle in the media. True, both are envious of what the other player possesses. Bryant envies the fact that no matter what he achieves, James is universally considered the league’s best and most talented player (and not a selfish ballhog, which is Bryant’s most famous knock). James, on the other hand, envies Bryant’s five rings, hoping to attain at least one ring someday (and not a egotistical loser, which is James’ most famous knock), so he too can enter the conversation for Greatest Of All-Time.

Besides the value of natural occurrence in rivalries, the next most important factor is timeliness. The Bryant vs. James was never auspicious, as the two don’t have much of a history together. Bryant’s ‘rivals’ were supposed to be Iverson, Carter and McGrady, three players’ careers he destroyed without much effort (the only slip-up was Iverson’s Game 1 victory in the 2001 Finals). James’ closest rivals on paper should be Wade, Anthony, and Howard, three players he considers to be his best/better friends in the league (possibly due to the AAU frenemies culture James grew up in).

Bryant and James have competed for the title of the league’s best player the past few seasons, but don’t confuse that for something it’s not. Simply put, they’re opponents and competitors, nothing more. There is no doubt that when all is said and done, both players will first be compared to Michael Jordan and then each other. Both are unique, legendary talents and are great ambassadors for the league, but honestly, there’s no rivalry here. Please, don’t push it.

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