LOS ANGELES -- On June 26, 2003, Kobe Bryant told then-ESPN reporter Jim Gray that he would opt out of his contract with the Lakers after the following season and become a free agent. That night, LeBron James was selected by the Cavaliers with the first pick in the NBA draft. To Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the events were not coincidental. For all that has changed since 2003 -- Bryant did opt out, but re-signed with the Lakers; James played seven seasons with the Cavs, but after his own heart-to-heart with Gray, bolted for Miami -- Jackson still views the Bryant/James dynamic through the prism of their first PR battle.
"Kobe took headlines away from him," Jackson said. "I think he had him in his sights right off the bat."
Jackson tossed out this conspiratorial nugget four days before Christmas, when the Lakers will play the newfangled Heat for the first time, Bryant and James enduring the latest round in their running debate as to the real king. Nike has James wearing red shoes for the occasion and Bryant green, though the shade of green is what's eye-catching: It's a bright lime, so as not to evoke the Celtics, but rather the Grinch. Such is the role that Bryant used to play, the foil who watched James take all the glory every winter, before snatching it away at the very end. Even last season, James' Cavs humiliated Bryant's Lakers on Christmas, which mattered not a bit when Bryant collected his fifth championship while James was still plotting his first.
James managed to upstage Bryant through an interview with Gray, just as Bryant tried to do long ago, but in this case it backfired. The damage that interview did to James' image was directly proportional to the boost it gave Bryant's. Regardless of the shoes, Bryant is no longer the basketball Grinch, but the James counterpoint: the superstar who stayed in one city despite his many threats to leave, who wanted the burden of a big-market franchise on his back, who made his supporting cast come to him. Besides the five titles, James' interview with Gray might have been the best thing that ever happened to Bryant. For the first time in nearly a decade, he hasn't drawn the loudest boos in the NBA. Hating him is passé.
Bryant and James have never met with anything significant at stake, so these regular-season exhibitions garner more attention than they merit. When the Lakers lost what was supposed to be a tune-up Tuesday night against the Bucks, Bryant was ejected with two technical fouls late in the fourth quarter, and he walked off the court swearing and waving his arms. He did not speak to reporters afterward, but several Lakers acknowledged that he might have been sending a message to the team in advance of Saturday.
"It's tough to get motivated for right now in the season," center Andrew Bynum said. "We're trying to do a better job of that."
At this time of year, the Lakers practice for only about 75 minutes per day and talk endlessly about maintaining perspective, pacing themselves, playing for June instead of January. Those are Jackson's mantras, not Bryant's. His competitive nature does not vary by month and he sees that the Lakers are losing more than they should. They have already dropped eight games, one fewer than the Heat, and that was in the easy part of their schedule. Ron Artest compared the Christmas showdown to "a great pound-for-pound fight," as if the Heat and the Lakers are no more than a couple of middleweights. The Lakers sit third in the Western Conference, only 1½ games out of fifth. With the way San Antonio and Dallas are churning at the top of the conference, it's not too early to say home-court advantage is in jeopardy.
The Lakers like to flirt with danger, but they should still beat the Heat, for reasons that have little to do with Bryant and James. Although James tried to create a stacked roster last summer, Bryant already had one. The matchup of these two front lines is comically lopsided: Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Bynum for the Lakers against Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony for the Heat, who are missing Udonis Haslem. Bryant still defines the Lakers, and probably will until the day he retires, but they underwent a subtle identity shift in Game 7 of the Finals against the Celtics last season. They won that night because they have three star-quality post players who combine size with skill. No other team enjoys the same luxury.
When the Lakers have only Gasol and Odom, as they did for the first 24 games of this season, they remain among the elites. But Gasol and Odom are then forced to play too much, the bench shortens and the Lakers are beatable. Bynum is back now, but still logging limited minutes and complaining of stiffness in his knee. He is a constant source of anxiety and reassurance both. The Lakers know they cannot depend on him -- this is the fourth consecutive season that he's missed time with knee trouble -- but when they have him at full strength, alongside Gasol and Odom, few teams can counter.
Bryant has discovered what James soon will. It's not enough to be flanked by talent; the talent must be complementary. Transcendent perimeter players like Bryant and James need reinforcements down low. Bryant has them, and as long as he uses them Saturday, he should continue to pick up ground on James. In most statistical categories, from points to field-goal percentage to overall records, Bryant and James are running about even this season. But once again the winner of their personal rivalry will be revealed long after Christmas, and chances are, it won't be decided face to face.
More likely, the loser will be watching from afar, perhaps with Jim Gray.