Over his 17 years in the NBA—and, actually, even before that—LeBron James developed a strong relationship with the late Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. The two faced each other 22 times in their careers, with Bryant suiting up for the Lakers and James in the East with the Cavaliers and Heat, and were teammates on USA Basketball’s gold-medal-winning teams in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Now, James and Bryant share a different bond: Each has led the Lakers to the NBA Finals. It’s been a decade since it has happened, but it was Bryant who led the charge in 2010 and now, it’s James leading the way in 2020. The Lakers have rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs, winning the Western Conference by taking down Portland, Houston and Denver, each in five games, and now await their Finals opponent.
With the tragic passing of Bryant, who died along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in late January, James has felt some extra weight in leading this franchise.
“Every time you put on purple-and-gold, you think about his legacy and what he meant to this franchise for 20-plus years,” James said on Saturday after Game 5. “What he stood for, both on the floor and off the floor, what he demanded out of his teammates and what he demanded out of himself.”
In a conversation with Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes, James added that when he first signed with the Lakers, Bryant sent him a text: “Welcome, brother. Welcome to the family.”
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant made plans to break bread after he signed in 2018. It kept being put off. In @YahooSports exclusive with LeBron, reveals questions he had for Kobe, Kobe’s text, trying to win over Laker faithful and calling game before Game 5: https://t.co/gnXQS28Q1D
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) September 27, 2020
James told Haynes that was huge in helping him make his transition from Cleveland to the West Coast. Lakers fans at the time, at least to James, were not sold on a guy in his 30s making a move to L.A. late in his career, perhaps with business opportunities in mind more than basketball.
James said, “A lot of people were saying, ‘Well, we might not want LeBron at this point in his career,’ and, ‘Is he right? Is he going to get us back [to the Finals]?’ So to hear from him and get his stamp of approval, it meant a lot. I don’t ever question myself, but when it’s coming from Kobe, it definitely meant a lot.”
LeBron James on Kobe: ‘I Am One of the Few That Can Understand the Mindset’
Bryant finished his career in 2016 with five championship rings, three won with Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s and two more with Pau Gasol in 2009 and 10. James is seeking his fourth championship and making his 10th Finals appearance of his career.
He is, according to Elias Sports, the first player to reach the Finals with five different head coaches. He is also now 38-10 in closeout games, the best mark in NBA history.
According to @EliasSports LeBron James improves to 38-10 (.792 win pct) all-time in closeout games.
That is the best record by a player in NBA postseason history (min. 25 games).
James is the first player to reach the Finals with five different head coaches in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/JHhmbthlSi
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 27, 2020
James pointed out that though his style of play is different from Bryant’s, the two shared a bond in terms of their drive to win and their willingness to sacrifice to get there. As he put it:
We have some similarities in that sense. Our games are different, but as far as our mindset and our drive to want to be the best and our drive to not lose. Even, the score, sometimes you are going to lose games, but that drive to always want to be victorious, it stops you from sleeping. Sometimes you put certain things, you sacrifice your family at times because you are so driven to be so great that other things fall by the wayside at times. I understand that. I am one of the few that can understand the mindset he played with and the journey from high school to the NBA. It’s a thing that I carry with me, like I said, every time I decide at one point in that locker room before the game and I throw that jersey on.
LeBron James Recalled His Original Meeting With Kobe Bryant
On the day before the death of Bryant, James had moved past him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, into the No. 3 spot. Fittingly, that game was in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown. James reflected then on the first time he met Bryant and the impact Bryant had on him.
James recalled that he was in high school for his St. Vincent-St. Paul team, playing against Carmelo Anthony and a vaunted Oak Hill squad in New Jersey when the NBA All-Star game was being held in Philadelphia. That was in 2002, a game in which Bryant scored 31 points. James drove with high school friend Maverick Carter to see Bryant at the players’ hotel.
“He gave me a pair of his shoes which I ended up wearing that following night,” James said, according to USA Today. “It was the red, white and blue Kobes. I was a (size) 15 and he was a 14 and I wore them anyways. I sat and just talked to him for a little bit. He gave me the shoes, and I rocked them in the game and it was the same night we played Oak Hill against Melo. Then, I saw what he was able to do the next night winning MVP here in Philly that following night.”