“It was kind of sad, actually. To know that this is Kobe’s last year, it’s sad because the guy’s just had a hell of a career.”
Those words came from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, who spoke at length when asked on Tuesday morning about the pending retirement of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who announced on Sunday that he would be retiring after this season.
James spoke about how Bryant’s career had impacted his early life:
“What he’s done for me and my career is…I mean, when I was a kid, having his posters on my wall when I was growing up, to my junior year in high school when we played in the tournament in New Jersey…and I think the All-Star game was in Philly, I got the opportunity to go meet him and he gave me a pair of his shoes to wear.
“Kobe being at the ABCD camp and talking to us. I was a 15-year-old kid that didn’t know much. In high school, I wore a nappy-ass afro because of Kobe Bryant because he wore it. I wanted to be just like him.”
Recounting their first on-court meeting during James’ 2003-04 rookie season:
“To me being a rookie, our first home game was against the Lakers, and just playing against him was a dream come true for me, because being a kid that came straight out of high school, too, it was like those guys you look up to,” said James.
Memories of Bryant’s storied career flowed:
“I could sit here for an hour-and-a-half and talk about him because I have so many memories of personal things: the 81-point game, the 63-point game at the end of the third, the game-winner against Phoenix on the right wing, the tip dunk against Indiana, the behind-the-back 360 dunk against Denver in the Staples Center. I could go on and on watching him.
“I was lucky because he played in the Western Conference his whole career and I’ve been in the Eastern Conference my whole career, so I could always go home and watch him play after my game. To know that it’s coming to an end is truly sad for me.”
Bryant’s effort served as a perpetual motivator for James:
“I always said my inspiration came from Jordan, but I always thought Jordan was so out of this world that I could never get there, and Kobe was somebody I always wanted to be like and play like,” said James. “Then, being a competitor, he just took me to that next level. I understand how important competition is, and have a willingness and never say die. You may lose a game, but you’re always going to win every battle or win the war, and you get that off of Kobe just competing against him every year.”
A missed opportunity in 2009 remains a source of regret for James:
“I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us,” said James. “To meet in the finals, I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, he wanted it, he held up his end of the bargain, I didn’t hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn’t happen.
“I never assumed it. Obviously, there was so much made of it, Lakers vs. the Cavs, Kobe vs. LeBron, but I couldn’t do that to my teammates to kind of assume it, that’s not my job. I saw that the stat that since 2007, either he or I have been in the finals, but we never met and that sucks. Not only for us two being competitors, but also for the fans.”
The two also played together during two consecutive Olympic Games:
”Becoming teammates on the Olympic team in 2008 and also 2012. Finally being on the same floor with him as a teammate. Just seeing him, seeing his work ethic, seeing how he carried himself every single day,” commented James. “I think he saw being a teammate of mine in ’08 and ’12 how much I put in the game as well, and the respect just rolled after that point.”
James went deeper when discussing Bryant’s tireless work ethic:
“Someone I always wanted to work out with during the summertime. Put my heart into it with him. Just seeing everything that he accomplished everything he went through, he always left it out on the floor,” said James. “So it’s kind of emotional for me just to see it coming to an end for him, because he’s someone I always looked up to, someone I’ve truly gained great respect for, not only as a competitor, but as a friend.
“I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant. I knew he was in the gym and I knew he was working on his game, and I knew he was great. So every day that I didn’t want to work out, every day I felt I couldn’t give more, I always thought of Kobe, because I knew that he was getting better, and I was like ‘If you take one day off, he’ll take advantage of it.’ You cannot take a day off and I used him for my motivation throughout my career because I knew that he was always working on something.”
James disagreed with Kevin Durant’s contention that the media hadn’t given Bryant the proper respect:
“I think the media’s done a great job of building Kobe as he is today. There’s no reason for me to say that the media has made him look a certain way,” said James. “Throughout his career, he’s done unbelievable things, and part of the reason that he’s as big as he is obviously because of the work he’s put into it, but also the coverage that we all get from you guys. So, I don’t see it that way.”
About their last games against one another:
“I think it’ll be very emotional and be fun. Obviously, I want to win and he wants to win, too,” remarked James. “Something about that will be much bigger than a win or a loss. I actually looked on the calendar last night to see when we play them both games.”
The competitive nature of both players had respect at its core:
“We’ve always competed against one another and we’ve always wanted to dethrone each other, but we always had that mutual respect because we know how much we put into the game and I’ve always voiced my opinion about how great Kobe is.”