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LeBron May Be a Leader, but Unlike Kobe, He Has Yet to Learn How to Inspire

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers speak during a game on January 15, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 12, 2017

LOS ANGELES — When you get old, you start thinking about how you'd like to be remembered.

However, what you hope sticks in people's minds might not be your actual legacy.

LeBron James, now in his 13th NBA season, still has bit to go in what will endure as truly one of the best of the best careers.

But what is the specific inspirational quality that James will leave in our memories?

And if there winds up not being one particular hook, does it become impossible for James to be more memorable than Kobe Bryant?

Bryant is very much going to be remembered, albeit not in the way he really wants.

Bryant's greatest wish would be for folks to look past his prodigious genetic gifts and admire him as a classic overachiever who maximized his potential.

Objectively speaking, what Bryant probably should be most celebrated for is sort of along those lines: He worked at his craft—truly tried hard to triumph in so many ways—and stands one of the few on earth who can look back and say as he does now, "It just wasn't possible for someone to outwork me."

However admirable, work ethic is too humdrum and private to be deeply memorable, especially for sports stars who rule on such public stages.

When reflecting on the careers of Los Angeles legend Bryant and Ohio's own James, facing each other for the final time Thursday night if Bryant's sore shoulder permits, Ohio State product and Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell settled on one particular word regarding Bryant.

MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 22:  Kobe Bryant #24 and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 22, 2016 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Intimidation.

For better or worse, no matter how smiley Bryant is here in his 20th season and Russell's first, that is going to be the lasting image of Bryant. His quest for his goals was so relentlessly intense that it inspired awe and even fear in others. He was that aggressive about going for it.

And passion readily resonates with people.

James' dominance has been different.   

He plays like a Swiss army knife capable of a variety of amazing moves; physically, he has always looked genetically engineered for this game. He is astounding in those two ways that make it difficult to pin down what he means to the average Joe.

There is one way, though, that James connects with the masses on a human level.

For someone who has been king of his hill forever—guys may pick up nicknames such as "Scooter" or "Sully" or even "The Black Mamba," but definitely not "The Chosen One"—James has managed to check his ego, come across as generally likable (aside from one hour of contrived TV) and serve as a good member of society.

Asked on the Today show last year about his legacy, James said, "Who I am as a man and what I do off the floor defines my legacy more than what I do on the court. That's just how I've always thought about it."

Instead of being consumed by his gifts, James has been an upstanding citizen, a caring person and a team player. Basketball-wise, that has translated into a very specific style of LeBron leadership that Bryant describes as being able to "instill confidence in others."

Supported by memorable passing skills in such a powerful player, this is for what James can be remembered—and maybe even deified. The titles of "greatest player" and "glue guy" are supposed to be mutually exclusive, but in this case they can meld.

And that is why it's so crucial for this homecoming thing to work out in Cleveland.

If James can bring the long-missing glory and pride to his home turf with the assistance of playoff greenhorns Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, space cadet J.R. Smith and another novice head coach in Tyronn Lue, it will set James as a unifying force of heroic proportions forever.

That will be his legacy, no question.

Small problem: It's not exactly a fun ship in Cleveland cruising in that direction right now.

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 29: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks out onto the court during the player introduction prior to the game against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena on February 29, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: Use
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Accordingly, it is questionable whether James is indeed a band-of-brothers kind of guy.

Love certainly didn't feel well-communicated with last season, and he hasn't fulfilled James' preseason proclamations ("Kevin Love will allow me to rest a lot this year") that Love's upturn would make this season super smooth for the team. Head coach David Blatt had to be fired in hopes of tightening the group.

Recently, James' cryptic social-media posts—he acknowledged "it wasn't a coincidence" that one last season appeared directed at Love—have popped up. The posts are meant to support James' "Strive for Greatness" mantra, but some are so vaguely negative that they are open to logical perception that he doubts his current teammates.

James said last season that whatever he puts out there will be subject to over-analysis of The Da Vinci Code proportions, but the fact that he continues to provide the impression of passive-aggressive leadership is a turn-off any way you look at it.

When James tweets about how he can't accomplish the dream "if everyone isn't dreaming the same thing" and refuses to elaborate or explain, how does that make Irving, Love and the rest of the team look or feel?

Whatever James is doing, he is doing it in hopes of positioning the Cavaliers for a surprising championship. The thing is, he is messing with his legacy one way or another.

When pondering James' time in the league, Bryant was moved to shake his head and say last month, "Thirteen years…he might retire soon, too."

Bryant's impending exit has solidified what his career has meant: Bryant's inspiration was as clear as his trademark intensity.

That aggression is why so many players—including Kevin Durant, the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki and James' dear friend and title teammate Dwyane Wade—have called Bryant this generation's Michael Jordan.

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14:  NBA player Kobe Bryant attend the 2016 NBA All-Star Game at Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)
George Pimentel/Getty Images

By the same token, when Bryant reflected a year ago on Jordan's career, Bryant's word-association memory of Jordan as a scorer was "aggression."

James has been fully his own man in this brilliant career, but we need to see something more before any part of James' inspirational character can go in the vault.

Memories need to be vivid. We cling to images and ideals because they evoke human emotion in us.

Magic Johnson's smile overshadowed his flaws, whereas Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's coldness overrode his greatness. Certain things stick with us, fair or unfair.

Kobe Bryant will forever intimidate.

And maybe LeBron James isn't the greatest team player we've ever seen. If he isn't, his legend will suffer from it.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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