The NBA and its marketers, dedicated to maximum hype always, have been rooting (via the medium of puppetry) for a collision of superduperstars in this year's NBA Finals. The trailer for an ESPN special about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, "Dream Season: 23 & 24," prematurely posited that the Cleveland Cavalier gives Kobe a long-awaited, worthy rival to test himself against, like Magic Johnson against Larry Bird, each man's brilliance counterbalanced by the other's.
But Magic and Bird were true contemporaries: They battled for the college championship, then entered the NBA together as rookies. Kobe was a three-time NBA champ when LeBron was still in high school. And now, at age 30, Bryant is starting to fade from his physical peak, while the 24-year-old James is still on his way up. Their relationship is more like the one between Bird and the aging Julius Erving—though the two did star in a one-on-one video game, their on-court rivalry was punctuated by a frustrated Dr. J grabbing his young tormentor by the throat.
More importantly, the Waiting for LeBron premise shortchanges the rivalry that has truly defined an era in the NBA: Kobe Bryant against the Guy Beating Kobe Bryant.
Ask Paul Pierce. Or Manu Ginobili. Or Chauncey Billups. Or ask Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw—you don't even have to win an NBA title to enjoy the rewards of beating Kobe Bryant. It is its own reward, the defining rite of passage for a generation of players. This season, it's Carmelo Anthony and the perennially lightweight Denver Nuggets who have the privilege of slugging it out with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. If he can beat Kobe, Anthony will have established himself as not just a scorer but an all-around star and perhaps an eventual Hall of Famer, the kind of player who can rise to the biggest occasions.
Playing Kobe Bryant is the biggest occasion in the league. From the moment he went pro, Bryant's obvious, self-conscious ambition was to be the next Michael Jordan, the player against whom all other players would be measured. In his own way, Kobe has reached that goal. It's just that other players like the way they measure up.
This doesn't mean that Bryant is easy to beat. If it were easy, nobody would care, and Kobe would be another Jerry Stackhouse or Vince Carter on the scrap heap of failed Next Jordans. Bryant is a ferocious competitor, a preposterously skilled and creative scorer, a stifling defender. He's just not impossible to beat.
Michael Jordan's standard of excellence was cruelly unattainable. Once Jordan and the Bulls made it to the top of the league—struggling up through the brutal round-robin among Bird's Celtics, Magic's Lakers, and the bad boy Pistons—the tradition of new champions wresting the title from the old champ was broken. Nobody was going to wrest anything from Jordan.
The only playoff series he lost after reaching the pinnacle—to Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic—came in Jordan's short-season comeback from his baseball-playing interregnum. He wore No. 45 when that happened, as if to make sure that posterity would know that the guy getting stripped of the ball by Nick Anderson was not the real Jordan.
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