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Debate Continues: Who's the Man, Kobe or LeBron?

April 30, 2006|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

They're six years apart in age, they don't play the same position exactly, and they play against each other only twice a year.

Yet Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are heading to the point where they are becoming connected in our sports consciousness. Just as the 1950s gave us Mays or Mantle, the '60s gave us Wilt or Russell, the '70s gave us Ali or Frazier, the '80s gave us Magic or Bird and the '90s gave us Emmitt or Barry Sanders, we now have Kobe or LeBron.

Few things are better in sports than a rivalry ... or the perception of one. Kobe versus LeBron certainly isn't a full-blown rivalry, and the desperate desire for it to become one is something we, the sports consumers, are probably far more interested in than either of them.

Nevertheless, you can't walk into a sports bar or barbershop or any clearinghouse for basketball discussion this time of year and not hear it:

If you were starting a team, who would you take, Kobe or LeBron?

And we're not taking each as a rookie out of high school; we're starting with each player as he is right this minute, with everything we know now. Kobe, 27, has three championship rings but is starting over after a very public divorce (from Shaq, silly). And LeBron, 21, is two games into his first playoff series with no history but certainly no baggage.

It's a difficult choice, isn't it?

All of the aforementioned are tough because the competitors are so undeniably great. But I don't get stuck for long. Give me Mays (perhaps the greatest player ever), Russell (more rings than anybody in any sport) over Wilt, who still is the greatest athletic marvel ever, Ali, Magic and Emmitt. And if we run this back to the 1940s, and offer up Joe DiMaggio versus Ted Williams, I'm taking the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, despite all of DiMaggio's World Series rings.

Kobe versus LeBron doesn't have that cachet and may never. But it's starting to sizzle. They are two of the most publicized athletes of this new century. They've come into our living rooms for years now, which means they are immediately recognizable. While Steve Nash reportedly will win the MVP award, Kobe and LeBron will almost certainly finish second and third. Both are leading their teams in playoff series that are tied at a game apiece, and both are expected (and paid) to lead their teams to championships.

So the question, rephrased a bit, is which player is best suited to do that, to lead his franchise to a championship.

And I'll admit it -- I'm stuck.

Philosophically, I prefer players who involve their teammates, who are as inclusive in their approach as is humanly possible. Although I believe that Michael Jordan, in this modern era of basketball, is the game's greatest player, if you ask me whether I would start a team with Magic or Jordan, I would answer "Magic" as often as not.

LeBron is the closest thing the game has to Magic. His triple-double in his playoff debut was the first time a player has done that since ... Magic, in 1980. His teammates don't just love playing with him, they treasure it. The only thing better than the way he demonstrates how much he trusts his teammates, none of whom is a superstar, is the way they burn to justify his faith. What more could you ask in a team game?

The former greats who this season criticized LeBron for passing off to open teammates in the final seconds of close games were dead wrong.

The great player is expected to make the play, not necessarily the shot.

And because LeBron stayed true to his philosophy of how to play and trusted Flip Murray, Donyell Marshall and Eric Snow to make not just big shots, but game-winners, the Cavaliers have no adjustments to make when it comes to how to play the game. What we don't know about LeBron is how he will respond to hard playoff fouls and heartbreaking playoff defeats, which are sure to come. We haven't seen him in Game 7s yet, or road playoff games, or games where he's sick or injured. But so far, everything we've asked to see from this kid, now that he's taken his team to the playoffs, he's done remarkably. The most hyped high school athlete ever to play a team sport has not just met the hype; he has exceeded it.

In fact, the most impressive thing Kobe has done in his post-Shaq era is play more like LeBron in the Lakers' first-round series against the Suns. And that's why if I had to field a team tonight I would take Kobe over LeBron. There is a big asterisk by my selection. I'm taking Kobe, but only if he's coached by Phil Jackson.

Despite Jackson's very public scorching of Kobe two years ago in the coach's book about the 2004 Lakers season, the two have worked together as they never did during the championship years. Kobe has been anything but uncoachable, as Jackson felt was the case three and four years ago.

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