Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kobe versus Lebron

via Lakers Nation: With the long awaited Christmas Day matchup drawing nearer, Fan Reporter Morgan Cohen takes a look at the Kobe vs LeBron debate. Who do you think is better: Mamba or the King?

Generally speaking, I can be pretty quiet when people first meet me. If someone else is dominating the conversation, I let them and I listen respectfully. At the same time, I’m a naturally loquacious individual who is more than happy to talk if someone will let me. Mention the Lakers in passing and I’ll jump at the opportunity to chime in. Or if you’re insane enough, dare to insult Kobe Bryant to my face and see what happens. It amazes me when I’m wearing Lakers gear at my favorite bar how many guys attempt to strike up a conversation by insulting my jersey. I guess it works, because I can never resist an opportunity for a good sports argument in general, or the chance to put a Laker/Kobe Hater in their place. While I don’t always convince them, I try to wear them down enough to admit their respect for Kobe’s game, no matter how begrudgingly they give it.

This summer, I received an email from an acquaintance about basketball and he lead with “I analyze sports for a living and there is NO WAY Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron James. Kobe might have a greater desire/will to win & have a better jumper, but LeBron is the most effective player in the league.” At first glance, I was ready to eviscerate him for even suggesting that LeBron is better is Kobe but I took a moment to really read and absorb what he wrote. Is LeBron more effective than Kobe? And if so, does that truly make him better? I thought about it and despite my instinct to defend Kobe’s honor against every slight, I conceded that LeBron was probably better… but Kobe is still best.

LeBron James is a freak of an athlete in the best possible way, and I used to really enjoy watching him play when he first entered the league. He was exciting, personable, and more than lived up to the hype surrounding his game. Somewhere along the line, the media started placing him on a pedestal above Kobe Bryant and that did not sit well with me- after all, where are his rings? Additionally, cracks started to show in LeBron’s kingly veneer and the image that emerged was not of an athlete with Michael Jordan’s killer instinct and Magic Johnson’s sparkling personality, but of a petulant, real-life Vincent Chase more concerned with having fun with his friends and putting up gaudy numbers than collecting rings. I want to respect LeBron, I really do. He’s incredible. But I can’t when he acts like a spoiled child so much of the time. More often than not, he relies on his supreme athletic gifts to get him where he needs to be, not his work ethic. Having your dreams handed to you on a silver platter will do that to a person.

The reasons Kobe Bean Bryant is best? The Mamba is more clutch, he's a proven winner, he still wants to win more than anyone on the planet except for maybe MJ, and he will do anything to make that happen. Besides my obvious adoration for him because he's on my home team and I've grown up watching him, I respect his dedication to constant improvement and his insane work ethic. Many of his Team USA teammates openly admitted that seeing Kobe’s work ethic and competitive intensity every day was shocking. It forced men who are already superstars in their own right to improve their own games just to compete at Kobe’s level. He was the catalyst for change on Team USA and his leadership and defensive mindset were the main differences between bronze in 2004 and gold in 2008. Everyone wondered if the game was on the line, if the gold medal was slipping away, who would step up? Would it be Dwayne Wade, who has a championship of his very own? Would it be LeBron James, the self-appointed “King”? Or would it be Kobe Bryant, the Closer with ice water running through his veins? With so many egos and alpha dogs on one team, would everyone fight for the last shot and the chance to be the man on the biggest stage of their careers? As it turns out… there was no contest. During the Gold Medal game versus an incredibly tough Spanish opponent, our entire team of superstars deferred to Kobe in the closing minutes to work his Mamba magic. Alpha dog issue solved as simply and organically as it ever will be. I love how coldblooded he is when the clock's winding down and the game is on the line.

Maybe it's not fair to compare them because Kobe’s killer instinct is so otherworldly, but one of the things I dislike most about LeBron is how silly he is. I don’t think it is wrong to strive to be an entertainer, but there is a fine line between electrifying basketball and putting on a theatrical show. I'll never forget when the Lakers played the Cavs this past January. After their abysmal Christmas Day loss to Cleveland, the Lakers were out for revenge and only down two with 23.4 seconds left. During the Cavs timeout, ABC showed LeBron rapping on the sidelines to an Eminem song. Really, dude?! That drove me insane. Yes, LeBron put up great numbers and had some clutch plays, but his shenanigans showed no respect at all for the competitiveness of the game. Do you think Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would fool around like that in the waning seconds of a hotly contested game, ever? Not in a million years.

I also couldn’t believe that LeBron shot a left handed free throw last year in the playoffs! In Game 4 of the first round, Cleveland was winning but needed two free throws to ice the game and put the Bulls away. What does LeBron do? Miss the second because he shot it left-handed! Never mind the fact that he claimed it was due to an elbow injury that no one would have known about if he hadn’t altered his free throw. The very same elbow injury mysteriously disappeared almost immediately following the game. It certainly wasn’t as egregious as Paul Pierce’s fake wheelchair exit, but still fishy, somewhat annoying, and definitely unprofessional. Kobe doesn’t use injuries as excuses. He won a championship with a banged up knee and mangled finger. LeBron is gifted and has so much potential, but I think he's more intent on being famous than actually winning, no matter what he says.

I found a great article on, discussing many of the same points about why LeBron might be better but can never be viewed through the same spectrum as Kobe, or Michael Jordan for that matter. The author Tom7 claims that LeBron will never be as respected as MJ, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or a number of other NBA legends “Because these NBA legends won more than just championships, their epic battles waged against worthy nemesises won respect, even from their opponents, and earned them their place in NBA history. Because if sports was just about the outcome and not the journey, we’d all stay home and get the scores off the Internet. Because being on top of a mountain earns people little respect, it’s the size of the obstacles they had to overcome in their climb that make these men so impressive.” By jumping ship and swimming over to South Beach, no title LeBron ever wins will mean as much to his legacy and the history books as a championship earned the hard way in Cleveland would have been. It was his prerogative to make that choice, but it is also ours as basketball fans to judge him for it.

Michael toiled for 7 long years in Chicago until he won his first -he was the promising, talented player who couldn’t win a title, but he never bolted. Kobe was the Robin to Shaquille’s Batman in the early years and morphed into the Dark Knight after being vilified for chasing championship dreams out of Los Angeles. I would argue that he was being the player he needed to be for the greater good: management needed pressure to bring in complimentary chess pieces for Kobe’s ultimate game. After all, Kobe was vilified in more ways than one in 2004 and it was unclear whether his legacy and legend would become permanently tarnished.

In the end, he became Lakerland’s shining hero once again- hitting game winning jumpers, learning to trust his teammates and leading them to three NBA Finals and two championships. He can move just as easily between jocular hero and grim-faced antihero depending on what the situation demands. I’m not trying to argue that Kobe was right to be petulant with his teammates or that he is the best player of all time. I’m merely trying to point out that what Kobe does is, in his mind at least, for the greater good. He a transcendent basketball player and one of the greatest to ever step on the court, thanks to a mixture of pure talent, preparedness, a dogged determination to constantly improve and a maniacal need to win each and every year. His mentality and approach to the game is unmatched. LeBron could conceivably get there one day, but he is not there now. And that is why he might be the most effective player in the league, but he is not the best player in the league.

The last scene of The Dark Knight is so powerful and the quote is one of my favorites. Commissioner Gordon tries to explain to his confused son that even though Batman hasn’t done anything wrong, they have to chase him “ Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.” Kobe is the guardian of the Lakers’ championship dreams for as long as he continues to play. LeBron could have been the Dark Knight watching over the desolate landscape of Cleveland. Instead, he took his talents to Dwayne Wade’s house, more than happy to use his God-given gifts in the guise of Robin.

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