Before Kobe Bryant and LeBron James meet for the second to last time, we look back at the coveted NBA Finals matchup that never materialized
Before they even entered the league, their paths seemed destined to cross on the hardwood in a battle for supremacy.
Kobe Bryant, the son of an NBA veteran, grew up in Italy before returning to the United States to become one of the most highly touted high school prospects in years.
James’ legend was written when he was only 17 years old when Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover and declared him as “The Chosen One.” The young phenom would grow to become the best basketball player of a generation and has re-shaped what it means to be a superstar in the league.
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Their global and mainstream popularity is unquestioned. They are in that special stratosphere of celebrity that is recognized by just one name.
Sponsors have also jumped on the opportunity to play-up the rivalry throughout their careers, in this memorable ad from Sprite for example.
There is only one issue, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers play in the Western Conference. LeBron James has only played in the East as part of the Cavaliers and Heat. The only way that the two would compete in a best of seven series would be if they met in the NBA Finals.
It was expected by the entire league that eventually such a matchup would occur. Both played on elite teams that were title contenders for several years. It was supposed to be beautiful symmetry, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played on the best teams of the 80’s and it materialized into three Finals matchups between the two.
In the new age of the internet and social media, it was expected that Kobe and LeBron would play out in the Finals for the next generation of fans.
Their first expected encounter was in 2008. The Lakers had acquired Pau Gasol and turned the corner in re-building since the Shaq-era. James was coming off his first appearance in the Finals where he was swept by the Spurs. After learning and building their supporting casts, it seemed that the two superstars might finally collide.
The matchup never materialized, however. The eventual champion Boston Celtics defeated the Cavaliers in the second round and would go on to deny Bryant his chance at a fourth championship.
Even after that letdown, Nike did not lose hope that their biggest stars would meet in on the sports biggest stage. They released a series of commercials that stoked the flames of the rivalry. Most notably, this viral series of ads that remain among the most popular basketball commercials in recent history.
That year, the Lakers and Cavaliers had the best records in the league with 65 and 66 wins respectively. Bryant led the Lakers to the Finals, but once again it was the Cavaliers who came short of completing the meeting. The third seeded Orland Magic upset the Cavs 4-2 in the Conference Finals. The Lakers would go on to defeat the Magic 4-1 and claim their 15th championship.
The story would have a familiar script again in 2010. The Lakers went to the Finals a third straight time while the Boston Celtics upset the first-seeded Cavaliers. Bryant would struggle but go on to win his fifth ring in a seven-game classic against the Lakers greatest rival.
2011 was marked by James’ game-changing decision to go from Cleveland to the Miami Heat. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James made his way back to the Finals for the first time in four years. This time, however, it was Bryant and the Lakers who would come short as they fell to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the second round.
The Lakers have struggled since then, struggling in the playoffs and missing them completely for the last two years.
LeBron James of course, has competed in an astounding four-straight NBA Finals going back to 2011 and looks on track to compete for the championship again this season.
Despite the great performances of both teams and fan anticipation, the final statement in the rivalry has never made.
With Bryant’s impending retirement, James spoke on the missed opportunities to face the Black Mamba in the post-season. Via ESPN.com:
“I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, we wanted it. He held up his end and I didn’t hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn’t happen.”
To date, Kobe and LeBron have played an even 20 games. James dominates their head-to-head meetings 14-6. Bryant holds a one-game edge in All-Star Game match-ups 5-4.
As much as fans and the media have tried to give substance to the rivalry, the two remain cordial and respectful when speaking of each other. They’ve played as teammates in the Olympics and won two gold medals together.
Regardless, when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James meet on Wednesday, the two will eventually guard each other as they always do. James won’t be giving Bryant a victory in Cleveland as a going-away present, and the Black Mamba wouldn’t have it any other way.