Where and when the Great Free Agent Summer Summit takes place no one is certain at the moment. Ambassador
Meanwhile, a more isolationist-minded superpower named
And so, as No. 24 laces them up for what could be a decisive Game 6 against the Suns in Phoenix on Saturday night, this would be a good time to remind everyone that, in many quarters, Bryant is now considered only the second-best player in the NBA.
Not in my book. Not yet. And probably not even next year, no matter where LeBron is playing.
The question of whether The King had surpassed The Kobester began to be asked quietly a couple seasons ago. Bryant was still the pick of most, but he engenders such enmity that many fans and journalists just couldn't wait until the NBA became LeBron's League. My own reading is that, by last season, a majority would've picked LeBron over Kobe, and after the Cleveland forward grabbed his second straight MVP award this season, that majority could be described as overwhelming.
Let me repeat: I was not one of them.
The idea that reputations are permanently made and permanently unmade in the postseason is uttered so often that we get tired of hearing it. But that doesn't mean it's false. It's the way it is. Cruel as it sounds, six months of sterling play can be erased by six weeks of mediocrity.
At this writing only a precious few insiders know exactly what happened to distract James during the Boston Celtics series. But something did. He let himself be taken out mentally, and not for the first time. By contrast, when throughout the 2003-04 season Bryant had to jet back and forth to Colorado for legal proceedings surrounding his sexual assault case, I never saw him turn off mentally. Of course it was a mental strain. He admitted as much. But on countless occasions he made big plays on the very days that he was traveling.
True, the Lakers did not win the title in the summer of 2004, but there were myriad problems with the franchise at that time: A war of wills between Bryant and
But let me propose another simply but often overlooked reason that Bryant remains superior to LeBron: Kobe is a better basketball player. Not a better athlete, which sometimes gets lost. A better basketball player. He dribbles better, passes better, has more ways to score and understands the game better. Which is not to say that LeBron is inferior in any of those areas. He is great. But he's not as good as Bryant.
The Suns are getting the whole Bryant basketball repertoire in this series. The absurd double-clutch jumper over
The way that Bryant turned distributor in the fourth quarter when the Suns went fulltime to their vaunted 2-3 zone (which they had worked on for all of 15 minutes before unveiling it in the series), finding the dependable
To differentiate between Bryant and James, the Suns'
"LeBron has the pullup jumper and he takes you to the rim," said Hill. "He has the two pitches, and, trust me, both of them are great. But Kobe is like the guy with all the pitches. He brings his fastball, his change, gives you something on the corner. LeBron will overpower you but you might know what's coming. With Kobe, you're never comfortable."
There is also that ineffable something known as will. Earlier this season Orlando's feisty
Perhaps LeBron wouldn't have flinched either, but the simple fact remains that he has flinched in several key spots between the lines. Around the NBA LeBron's skills are universally respected, but it's not just the media that wonders if he lacks the right stuff when he most needs it. "Hey, they say if a dog doesn't bark as a puppy," said one player who desired anonymity, "he doesn't bark when he gets older either."
Actually, the one place where Bryant has not barked quite as loudly over the years has been in Phoenix. In the first round of the 2006 playoffs at US Airways Center he all but quit in Game 7 when he stopped shooting and at one point said, as he strolled by the Suns bench, "They expect me to play with him at center?" (He was talking about
With all that in mind, Phoenix has to be considered the favorite in Game 6. I don't disagree and see a strong possibility there will be a Game 7 back in L.A. on Monday. But Bryant scored 36 and 38 points in the Games 3 and 4 road losses in this series of this I am certain: He senses the urgency in this road game will come out barking very, very loudly.