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Kobe-vs.-LeBron debate reveals as much about fans as the two players

We come here today not to praise LeBron James but to bury Kobe Bryant.

And, in a most un-Bard-like way, vice versa.

Actually, we come here not to praise or bury either but rather to consider how frequently supporters of one or the other feel compelled to do precisely that when debating the merits of the two high-octane NBA superstars. Right there, that word "debate" tells you a lot about how we view them and, frankly, how we think about the game of basketball. Other players, we discuss, compare and examine. With Bryant and James -- man, it's weird just to stick an "and'' between their names, when we're so accustomed to using "or" -- it's so often debate, occasionally veering into argument. Every once in a while the more fervent among us probably even drags things down to the level of fight.

Why so serious, as the guy with the bad makeup job would say? Why so polarizing?

"My God people!!! Big difference because Kobe has three [3] championship rings while James has none," a reader with the handle Albert23 posted on one Web site. "James has none. I repeat, NONE. All other NBA-recognized best players have championship rings ..."

"LBJ is better than Kobe at the same age, no question!" wrote bdriving. "Kobe is better at shooting and defensive [James is closing that category], but James is better in every other fascist [sic] of the game ..."

Rare is the sort of diplomacy -- or bet-hedging or straddling -- that coach-turned-analyst Jeff Van Gundy offered to USA Today at the All-Star break. "Kobe's basketball IQ, competitive spirit and skill set make him, unquestionably, the best closer in the game," Van Gundy said. "But James is younger, and nobody outplays him over the first 44 minutes."

The extremism runs deep. The vantage point from which I catch much of my in-person NBA action is Minnesota's Target Center, from the corner media section just over the left shoulder of the Timberwolves' 12th man. Seated nearby, among various local and out-of-town scribblers and yakkers, are Myles Brown, who writes a blog for SLAM Online, and Britt Robson, who does likewise in a popular, Timberwolves-centric blog, The Three-Pointer, for the Twin Cities-based Secrets of the City Web site. These are two rabid, informed and veteran NBA observers, admirers of the skills, devotees of the sport, with a profound mutual respect and, from all appearances, a solid friendship. Yet when they get to talking about the relative merits of James (Robson's choice) as opposed to Bryant (Brown's guy), you'd think you were planted between Rush Limbaugh and Nancy Pelosi. Or any Hatfield and your typical McCoy.

Again, why so polarizing? Isn't it possible to like both chocolate and vanilla equally as the battle for 2008-09 MVP award enters its final days (leaving strawberry, Dwyane Wade, out of it for now)?

No. Sorry. It's not feasible any more than it's possible to claim both the Beatles and the Stones as favorites. Here, after deliberation from somebody who grew up mistakenly thinking he could root for both the North Side and South Side baseball teams in Chicago, are some reasons why:

• It's only natural.

James and Bryant are perfect antagonists. They play in opposite conferences, for clubs that sit atop the Eastern and Western standings, respectively, and could very well end up clashing in the NBA Finals. They share similar backgrounds, at least in terms of their preps-to-pros career arcs. They have a flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by their splashy performances at Madison Square Garden in February; two nights apart, Bryant scored 61 points against the Knicks and James went for 52, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

Wait, there's more: They play more or less the same position (wing scorer and playmaker, Bryant from shooting guard, James from forward), filling basically the same role (franchise guy, team leader and offensive focal point) and chasing essentially the same goal (league championship). That makes this different from a lot of "who's the best?" arguments, when the contemporaries -- Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Tim Duncan vs. Shaquille O'Neal -- were skewed by position. Granted, Kobe already has three rings but he's still in search of his first without Shaq, as the Lakers' undisputed No. 1. Same with LeBron and the Cavaliers.

• It's a complicated question.

The answer to "Bryant or James?" hinges almost entirely on what else you factor into the discussion. Are you choosing the "best" player or the "most valuable" or the one having the best season? Is this a matter of who will be the greatest when we look back on their careers, the one you'd most want for your franchise going forward or, as some have framed it, Kobe's past 10 years versus LeBron's next 10?

No one wants to play Clintonian, the-definition-of-is semantics. But parsing the question is part of the debate. And it is likely you could end up with quite different answers yourself to questions framed thusly: Which of the two would you pick first for a playground game? Or, which guy do you want with the ball, 0:07 on the clock, tie score, in a Game 7? Heck, you might end up screaming at yourself from both sides.

• It's the way of our world.

Polarization is what we do these days. We live in states that are either blue or red, drive American or foreign, stick to diet or regular and tune in to Olbermann or O'Reilly.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof of TheNew York Times wrote recently of the increased segregation of Americans according to their preconceived notions and a tendency to seek out reinforcement rather than new, possibly conflicting information. He cited studies showing that people rarely tackle tough issues with those who hold different views and, after discussing them with like-minded folks, become more extreme in their positions. More polarized, less tolerant, with all the vehemence of less filling-tastes great. It's either the end of my nose or the start of your fist, with no gray area in between, and the Kobe-LeBron topic currently is one of the fiercest battlegrounds.

• It reveals more about us than it does about them.

This, I think, explains a lot of the passion. It tells the world what you fancy most about basketball: finesse vs. power, sleekness vs. strength, asserting the individual vs. facilitating the group. Excellence that is known -- Bryant, after all, is the closest we've gotten to Michael Jordan reincarnate -- compared to excellence being reinvented, locomotive-like, by James.

I hesitate to say it's a matter of style vs. substance, because both guys' ways have been eminently effective, in the way that either a Ferrari or a Porsche Cayenne can get the job done. People usually just prefer one to another.

The closest antecedent, hoops-wise, might be the Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debate that is almost as old as the NBA and isn't settled yet. Russell was the greatest winner in team sports, topping Chamberlain 11 championships to two thanks in part to supporting casts in Boston that were better than his rival's in Philadelphia, San Francisco and L.A.. But Wilt was the most dominant individual in NBA history, in terms of scoring feats and records held.

Claims to superiority for either? Multiple. Crossover among their most ardent supporters? Hardly any at all. Not unlike the two guys we've been marveling at this season and debating once more here.

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