On the precipice of his final visit to Cleveland as an active player, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant opened up Wednesday on his relationship with Cavaliers guard LeBron James, who has apparently gone from rival to friend as the pair have aged.
"We've been close," Bryant said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "We talk more than people know."
Of course, it hasn't always seemed that way. Bryant, one of the most competitive players in NBA history, used to very publicly bristle at the thought of being unseated by James as the game's best. The 2013 All-Star Game was perhaps the best evidence of Bryant and James' competitive relationship, as Kobe's lockdown defense drew more headlines than the result itself.
That said, their on-court rivalry appears to have stayed exactly that. The pair have been Olympic teammates twice, coming away with gold medals in 2008 and 2012. They've also publicly shared their admiration for one another on multiple occasions, including multiple comments from James since Bryant announced his impending retirement.
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"Anytime I even watch his games, even when I'm not playing him, it's always, like, very emotional just knowing it's his last hurrah," James said, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. "And he's done so much, not only for the Lakers organization, but for me as a kid growing up watching Kobe and things of that nature and also competing against him."
One place the two have never gone head-to-head was the NBA Finals. Bryant's Lakers last made an appearance in 2010, which is coincidentally the last time a James-led team has not won the Eastern Conference. Some consider the lack of a Bryant vs. James Finals as one of the biggest disappointments of the era.
The Lakers and Cavaliers play one more time this season, a March 10 date in Los Angeles. At that time, the torch may be officially passed—not from Bryant to James as the game's best player, but from Bryant to James as the guardian of a past era. Having turned 31 in December, James is decidedly at the tail end of his prime. Bryant's last Finals came during his age-31 season, and he offered James advice on how to handle the aging process, per Medina:
As the LeBron-Kobe rivalry comes to a close, it will be hard not to stay glued to the television for every minute—even as the Lakers nosedive out of relevance while James' Cavaliers position themselves as Finals favorites once more.
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