Late Saturday night, after he had passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s career scoring list, LeBron James got a phone call from Bryant, who had already tweeted his congratulations but wanted to reach out anyway.
For two iconic figures who had mastered their craft in the shadow of Michael Jordan, their conversation was warm and celebratory. Between them, there was mutual respect and admiration, a friendship that had grown stronger in recent years. James had paid tribute to Bryant during the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that night by writing the phrase “Mamba 4 Life” on his sneakers, a reference to Bryant’s self-styled nickname. James reflected on their relationship afterward.
“It’s surreal,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life.”
The next day, Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles. It brought to an abrupt end a friendship between icons, Bryant and James, who have each dominated the NBA as the apparent heirs of Jordan, channelling his drive and talent and championship pedigree to become distinctive greats with legacies of their own.
On his Instagram account Monday night, James posted a series of candid photographs of himself with Bryant.
“I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!” James wrote.
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I’m Not Ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn’t think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have. WTF!! I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! 😢😢😢😢💔. Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here! There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!! #Mamba4Life❤️🙏🏾 #Gigi4Life❤️🙏🏾
At 41, Bryant was just six years older than James – but Bryant came from a different generation, from an era that overlapped with the late stages of Jordan’s career. In that sense, Bryant was the bridge that linked Jordan to James, who entered the NBA the season after Jordan retired but has always worn the No. 23 as homage to him.
As a teenage prodigy, James sought to emulate Bryant from a distance: his preparation, his approach and, perhaps above all, his supreme confidence. James was still in high school when Bryant, then one of the NBA’s youngest stars, spoke at an ABCD Basketball Camp for elite prospects. Bryant emphasized the value of hard work.
“I was just listening,” James told reporters last week. “I was just trying to soak everything up that I could.”
As a high-school junior, James met Bryant for the first time. It was February, 2002, and James had a game outside of Philadelphia, which happened to be the site of NBA All-Star weekend. James and one of his friends went to an InterContinental Hotel so they could chat with Bryant for a few minutes. Bryant presented James with a pair of his sneakers. They were size 14 – one size too small – but James said he “rocked them” in his game that night anyway.
James also mimicked Bryant’s path to stardom, jumping straight to the NBA out of high school. Bryant’s success, James said, had helped embolden him to do the same. When Bryant had made the leap in 1996, most teams were reluctant to draft a high-school player, and Bryant slipped to No. 13. By the time James entered his name in the draft in 2003, the league had no such qualms, due in no small measure to Bryant. James went No. 1 over all to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A few years later, James had a formative experience alongside Bryant as a member of the United States men’s basketball team. During the summer of 2007, the team gathered in Las Vegas for an Olympic qualifying game. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, one of the team’s assistants, recalled that Bryant showed up a day early to work out on his own. He proceeded to treat practice the following day as though it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
“He was going after people,” Boeheim said in a telephone interview Monday, “and LeBron and all these younger guys were looking around like, ‘What’s he doing?’ I don’t think it gets talked about a lot, but I think he made a difference in how they approached the game. LeBron was not a great defensive player in those days, and Kobe had a huge influence on him.”
At the time, James was just 22 and still considered by most to be a “young phenom,” Michael Redd, one of the more experienced players on that national team roster, said in a telephone interview Monday. But it was clear to teammates that James was absorbing lessons from Bryant, big and small, that he was watching the way Bryant went about his business, especially on defence.
“I think LeBron had a tremendous amount of respect for Kobe at that time,” Redd said. “And Kobe did, too, for LeBron.”
In group play of its qualifying tournament, the United States built an enormous lead against Venezuela. But late in the second half, Bryant was still playing full-court defence against Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela’s point guard. Bryant picked up a couple of steals before going to the bench, where Boeheim reminded him that the win was in hand.
“I said, ‘Kobe, we’re up 49,’ ” Boeheim recalled. “And he goes: ‘That don’t matter. I’m getting him, coach.’ ”
The United States went on to win a gold medal at the Beijing Games, and Bryant played again in 2012 during the team’s gold-medal run in London. By then, Bryant was one of the roster’s elder statesmen, a five-time NBA champion who was content to take on more of a mentorship role. But the fire was still there.
“Kobe’s leadership and fierce determination is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever seen,” Boeheim said. “I think Jordan was that way. I didn’t get to coach him, but I saw him, and I think he was the same way. Every day, every practice, he’s going full out.”
As opponents, Bryant and James were hypercompetitive. But as Bryant neared retirement, their relationship seemed to become more close-knit. Both men had won championships. Both had built legacies that were secure. Both, like Jordan before them, had signature-sneaker deals with Nike. Both were businessmen with growing off-court ambitions, and both were raising young daughters.
After Bryant stepped away from the game for good in 2016 and James signed with the Lakers two years later, the connection between them grew stronger. In the curiously intense world of Lakers fandom, some of the team’s most ardent supporters – so-called Kobe stans to the core – were outraged that James, a player who they felt had hopscotched from team to team, would be wearing purple and gold. But Bryant, who had spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, expressed support for James from the very start.
It was as if the high priest of the Lakers church were offering the sacrament to the team’s newest marquee star, and it went a long way toward softening some fans’ hard feelings.
Over the past two seasons, Bryant was a semi-regular courtside presence at Staples Center, almost always with one or more of his daughters in tow. A brief hug between Bryant and James would be expected. An extended embrace, and shared jokes before and during the game would not be a surprise. The last message Bryant posted to Twitter was that congratulatory message to James on Saturday night.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant said. “Much respect my brother.”