Towards the end of the 2000s, there was a legitimate debate among NBA fans about whether Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant or Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James was a better player.
It was a different time, as Bryant was wrapping up the last of his five championships while James had yet to win one, a struggle that came to a head during the 2011 NBA Finals, in which the Dallas Mavericks punked James and beat his heavily favored Miami Heat superteam.
James and the Heatles would win the next two finals, but 2011 saw the Mavericks disrespect James’ jumper and trash talk him in the media. And while Stevenson told Ian Thomsen in his book “The Soul of Basketball” that he wouldn’t talk about Bryant the way he did James in that series, he wasn’t afraid of James getting extra motivation from it:
“Stevenson wasn’t at all concerned that his words would incite LeBron to awaken from his slump, because LeBron was no Kobe. “That’s something I would never in my life say about Kobe,” Stevenson said. “Never. If somebody asked me about Kobe, I would totally change the whole subject.”
While he was certain that Kobe would have attacked him for any perceived criticism, Stevenson believed LeBron didn’t have the killer instinct to hold a grudge.
“I don’t think he is like Kobe,” Stevenson said. “No disrespect towards LeBron, but I don’t think he has that type of mentality of them guys like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan — guys that would take that and try to destroy you every possession.”
James has since proven he has an argument to be as good or even better than any of the guys Stevenson named, but 2011 was a different time, when a less self-assured James seemed to be eaten up by getting real criticism for the first time upon joining up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Bryant, meanwhile, could never really be accused of backing down from trash talk. In fact, the Lakers legend is a confirmed member of team petty, often holding grudges (hi, Smush Parker) for years, and taking any chance he got to flame his adversaries on the court and then hit them with a witty comeback off of it (“Amnesty THAT”).
And while many will argue that it didn’t matter, the fear of him and respect for him displayed by Bryant’s peers over the course of his career isn’t to be ignored because it’s treatment that, for better or worse, James never seemed to inspire. That lack of fear didn’t necessarily keep James from surpassing Bryant, but it certainly seems to have changed the way those that played against both view the debate.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen, or support his work via Venmo here or Patreon here.