What separates basketball from other team sports is the power of the individual. Although it’s a team game, one superstar can change the complexion of a game to a greater degree than in any other major sport.
One of the greatest things a basketball fan can witness is a competitive individual rivalry. The sight of two great players competing mano-a-mano can be electrifying, and it’s a luxury that the other major leagues don’t get to appreciate.
You may come across an Andre Johnson-Cortland Finnegan situation now and then in other sports, but the NBA is the only league where you get to see great players guarding each other as they take turns trying to put points on the board and carry their team to a W.
NBA history is filled to the brim with these types of rivalries. They transform good players into legends.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. Reggie Miller and Spike Lee. LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson.
The list could go on and on.
The true fire behind great rivalries usually finds its fuel in the playoffs. Winning is paramount and the only thing that matters is walking off the court victorious and alive to fight another day.
The competitive fire burns brightest under the spotlight, and a man wearing a different jersey is an enemy. The greats of the game live for the chance to prove who is the greatest.
Many a debate can be settled once the players step onto the hardwood. Unfortunately, sometimes the players don’t get that chance and the debate rages on.
LeBron James entered the league as a never-before-seen phenom. He was tagged as the next “Chosen One” in his junior year of high school. He was a completely unrivaled combination of strength, power, speed and agility.
In LeBron’s dominant rookie season, Kobe was just coming off a three-peat. The stage seemed set for an inevitable collision of supreme basketball forces. Any game that featured both Bryant and James was hyped beyond belief. Even Nike did their part to power the hype-machine.
After LeBron’s Finals appearance in 2007, fans were giddy with the anticipation of a Goliath and Goliath battle with a championship on the line.
But the battle never came.
As inhabitants of different NBA conferences, they only play each other twice a year in the regular season. They both play in the All-Star game, but that hardly counts as competitive.
James or Bryant have been in the Finals every year since 2007. Every year the cards were somehow dealt with only one of them getting there.
We had begun to accept that we would never get to witness a LeBron-Kobe matchup with everything on the line. We had started to move on. There are plenty of other fish in the sea—like the shark named Durant who seems ready to get in the tank with LeBron again.
Kobe seemed to be on his last legs (literally), and after the last two playoffs where he got eliminated by the Mavs and Thunder, it looked like Kobe Bean Bryant might be done winning championships.
With the dawn of a new season approaching, however, there is hope once again. LeBron James is coming off one of the greatest individual years of basketball ever. With an MVP trophy, a championship ring and an Olympic Gold medal in his trophy case, he seems ready to lead his Heat to the pinnacle yet again.
Unless Kobe Bryant and his Lakers have anything to say about it. With a new and improved supporting cast, the Lakers look primed to make a Finals appearance.
Is this the year where we finally see Kobe and LeBron sharing basketball’s biggest stage? I certainly hope so.