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Kobe and LeBron: Puppet masters

MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

The Bryant-James rivalry is more heated in commercials than it is on the court, where admiration rules.

December 25, 2009|Mark Heisler
  • LeBron James and the Cavaliers come to Staples Center for a Christmas Day game against the Lakers with Shaquille O'Neal in tow.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers come to Staples Center for a Christmas Day… (Chuck Burton / Associated…)

From Sacramento — Where are those puppets when we need them?

The Montagues and Capulets, who feuded in "Romeo and Juliet," didn't have little stocking surrogates talking trash, although anything could happen in the next movie version.

The Lakers and Boston Celtics did their own taunting, up close and personally. Even as friends, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird lived to grind the other in the dirt, as after one Celtics win in the Forum when Bird, sitting on the team bus, saw a disconsolate Johnson slink by.

As Bird said later, "I thought, 'Suffer, you unprintable.' "

Which brings us to Kobe Bryant's and LeBron James' As-If Rivalry.

Both of them have rivals they're prepared to hate, all right.

And for both, it's the Celtics!

Once leery of each other, if no more than that, Kobe and LeBron have since shared a dream Olympic summer. Now their ease with, and admiration for, each other isn't political correctness, it's genuine.

"I mean, it's competitive for me," said James last week. "You love to go against the best every night.

"I mean, it's the best league in the world, but you love to go against the individual best too."

That's all there is?

What about Little LeBron noting his namesake lion "could step on the Black Mamba and eat it and use his skin for his boots" in their Nike spots, and Little Kobe telling him to give his search for his missing sneaker a rest.

Noted Real LeBron, grinning, "We let them do all the trash talking."

There are more commercial interests than Nike involved, such as (ahem) newspapers providing saturation coverage to harvest hits . . . or ESPN's crash program to launch "ESPN Los Angeles" before the Cavaliers-Lakers Christmas Day game.

It could have been worse, or better, with Shaquille O'Neal part of this Matchup for the Ages or At Least This Week, too.

How about a Little Shaq puppet jumping on top of Little Kobe and trying to squash him?

Good taste prevailed. First of all, O'Neal isn't a Nike endorser, and second, that's way over the top . . . now.

On Christmas, 2004, of course, with Shaq back for the first time after being traded by the Lakers to Miami, his ongoing feud with Kobe was the story line, Yuletide or no Yuletide.

The Cavaliers have nothing special against the Lakers, or, at least don't hate the preening darlings of Hollywood, more than anyone else does.

The Lakers don't even think much about the Cavaliers, which is great for Lakers fans.

Why would anyone want to hate LeBron, who's as good as Kobe and as much fun as Shaq?

Last season when Shaq had Phoenix teammates carry him on the floor, like Superman flying . . . sort of . . . it was in response to James' routines, like the one pantomiming a group picture after winning the title.

Or LeBron was replying to Shaq. It depends on who you ask.

James' runaway sense of humor precipitates the occasional incident, such as the one in which Chicago's Joakim Noah snarled at him and everyone milled around.

Tracked by a TV cameraman ready to put in for a Pulitzer if it got ugly, LeBron wheeled, put on a goofy smile and stuck his face in the lens . . . suggesting just how comfortable he is in his fishbowl and how much fun he's having.

As different as Bryant and James may seem, they're just different versions of the same rare phenomena, the game's greatest child prodigies.

James is still in his Bulletproof Phase. Kobe had one until about 2003, when annoyances appeared in his once-cloudless sky . . . like LeBron exploding commercially, getting $80 million from Nike before playing an NBA game.

Kobe arrived as the most precocious young player ever, but a teenager physically, at 6 feet 5, 175 pounds.

LeBron, the most advanced teen ever, didn't just have a grown man's body at 6-7, 240, it was a huge grown man's body, and now it's 6-7, 270.

With more hysteria descending at an earlier age, James handles it like a seal with a ball on its nose. He's the last NBA superstar who talks before games, and now even keeps his eyes open or makes jokes.

Here's something Kobe knows that LeBron doesn't: No one is bulletproof.

Of all the amazing things about James, the most amazing is the fact that no matter how crazy the expectations were, he met them . . . until recently.

His "P.R. snafus," like the uproar over not congratulating the Orlando Magic after the Eastern Conference finals, are overblown but they're not accidental.

They're the world's way of hauling LeBron off his pedestal after handing him the MVP award and assuming a title would follow.

Commissioner David Stern, himself, felt obliged to announce that James acknowledged his "responsibility" to fans, and James told Stern, "Sportsmanship is appropriate whether you win or whether you lose."

Had Cleveland won, LeBron could have refused to shake any hands and the Magic players would have been ripped for upsetting him.

Happily, LeBron doesn't care . . . yet.

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