CLEVELAND — Kobe Bryant played hard to get.
So LeBron James really, really had to earn Bryant's respect.
James' childlike reverence for Bryant never waned, as a result.
The guy who wore No. 8 on a poster on James' wall, whose hairstyle James once tried to emulate and work ethic James blew up into some mythical force of personal fear-based motivation, was and always will be a god to James.
That's why Bryant not pursuing a spot on the U.S. Olympic basketball team this summer is a very real reason James might also not join the team, according to NBA sources.
James is that disappointed the Rio Olympics will not serve as the final, ultimate celebration of Bryant's career—and more so that James won't have the priceless honor of being Bryant's co-star teammate when it ends.
James has not made a decision on Brazil and is expected to gauge how he feels after the NBA season. But James alluded last month to Bryant's absence from the U.S. team when James was named a finalist. In saying he was no closer to a decision on Rio, James said, "The last time I thought about Team USA was Kobe taking his name out of the pool."
Bryant and James played for the final time on James' Cleveland home court Wednesday night. They will square off once more in Los Angeles in March.
They were not just casual well-wishers going through the motions. They were the two guys who have run this sport for decades going through emotions, particularly on James' side.
Asked about the quiet of their repeated embraces before, during and after the Cavaliers' 120-111 victory over the Lakers, James said, "Sometimes what's known don't need to be said."
When Bryant announced this would be his final NBA season, James said it was "truly sad for me."
And added, "I wanted to be just like him."
They were Olympic gold-medal teammates in 2008 and '12. Through that, Bryant and James developed a closeness in recent years (although when Bryant held a 5-0 lead on James in NBA championships, Bryant couldn't help but lord it over "King James" in a snarky 2010 message as James was making his move from Cleveland to Miami).
"We talk on the phone probably more than people know," Bryant said. "We talk about the game. We talk about different strategies that center around the game. We talk about things off the court: business-related, players association-related."
Yet Bryant said he never viewed James as a contemporary.
They played in different conferences throughout, and here in his 20th season, Bryant mistakenly guessed Wednesday that James was only in his 10th when this is already his 13th.
"He looks at me like his younger brother, for sure," James said. "And that's pretty cool."
This is a time when James will take what he can get as far as youth goes. As he scans opposing rosters before games, it gives him pause when he sees some of the birthdates.
"Golly, born in '96 and the guy's in the league!" James, who was born in '84, said.
James feeling his age also means he is more vulnerable to nostalgia than ever, and his own boyhood worship of Bryant stirs something deep inside.
James spoke eloquently about how he felt as a young player in the NBA when Bryant didn't welcome him with truly open arms, and how he was perfectly willing to look up to Kobe "from a distance," justifying Bryant's singular mindset as completely sensible.
"He was so locked in on chasing Michael [Jordan] and Magic [Johnson] and those guys," James said, his gushing tone conveying the fan that he was.
"It helped me become who I am, as well, just watching him from afar."
Make no mistake: Bryant staying on that distant pedestal to James meant the awe could always sit in Bryant's back pocket to use. Had Bryant and James ever matched up in an NBA Finals, Bryant held a mind-game advantage. That aura of superiority would mean both of them sort of expected Bryant to win.
Their matchup never came to pass, however, and in recent years, Bryant has let James in. Some of it is mellowing with age; more of it is the big brother gaining respect for the little.
The very quality that makes James the type of person who would derive so much satisfaction from standing in someone else's shadow in Rio this summer is something Bryant now fully understands and admires.
"His greatest strength is his ability to communicate with others," Bryant said, "and instill confidence in others."
It's what Bryant could not miss when they became partners on those Olympic teams—noticing James' knack for talking to guys, boosting them up and brightening their outlooks.
James is, bottom line, a supportive person.
That's why it would have meant so much for him to be there in August to support Bryant's global farewell.
But Bryant had no confidence that his body would make it to the summer intact—or with any joint fluid left in the tank. He has been able to provide a decent number of points and some flashback moments in mostly noncompetitive games for a bad Lakers team this season, except he's killing himself to do it.
Taking an Olympic spot—and medal—from a deserving younger player, especially if Bryant wasn't capable of contributing at all, became unpalatable.
He has come to terms with that and not even playing an NBA playoff game the final four years of his career.
"I've eaten pretty well, so I can't complain that there's no dessert left," he said.
If you're defaulting to the idea that Bryant is such a glory hog that he won't be able to resist at least playing hero ball in search of the All-Star Game MVP award in that last hurrah Sunday, you're wrong.
Again, Bryant's body—specifically his ground-down ankles and knees—won't even let him entertain the idea.
"Feel horrible," he said late Wednesday night.
So the distrust of his body led him to step aside from the Rio opportunity last month, even though USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo was open to having him for leadership and previous service. (And the final guy on that 12-man U.S. roster is hardly going to play anyway.)
The U.S. is going to win gold easily, regardless, and that point is another one against James' participation.
If he wants to invest much of his offseason to get the Olympic experience a fourth time, James should go. If he doesn't go, though, they don't necessarily need him.
And because James is, again, a supportive person—Team USA not needing him could justify him not taking part.
Bryant's not the sort who would've necessarily needed support there, either. But James would've wanted to give it.
It would've been more than sharing Bryant's last days of basketball.
It would've been sitting so close to him at the end after standing so far away at the beginning.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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