Before LeBron James signed a four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, he wasn’t exactly the most beloved basketball player in Los Angeles, and he still isn’t. That title — depending on who you ask — belongs to Kobe Bryant, who spent 20 years donning the purple and gold and won five NBA championships during that time.
But while King James might not be the King of Los Angeles, he’s no longer despised by the Lakers faithful. In fact, he’s arguably the most popular player they’ve had since Bryant retired in 2016. That being said, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some mixed emotions among Lakers fans later this season, when James inevitably passes Bryant to move up to third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Just 81 points separate James and Bryant on the all-time scoring list, which means James could feasibly do it within the next three games or, if he does his best Kobe impression, in the next game by scoring 81. When it happens, Bryant told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that he’ll be the last person to turn green with envy:
“I won’t go to the game,” Bryant said. “I’d rather that be about him.”
But later that night, he will be one of the first people to ring him up.
“I’ll for sure call him and tell him congratulations,” Bryant said. “I’m so happy for ‘Bron, all he’s accomplished and continues to accomplish, he’s been great.”
For Bryant, it’s the history of the game that’s important to him, and if James breaks all of his records before he hangs them up, Bryant’s more than fine with that:
“I want to see people do well, I want to see them do better than anything I’ve ever done, that’s just the way it should be,” Bryant said.
He said he hears the debates and, while he understands, he can’t relate.
“I chuckle about them, it’s funny because people get so passionate over it, I understand, you’re fans, it’s a debate culture, that will never, ever stop,” he said. “But for us as athletes, myself and ‘Bron and all the other guys, we appreciate each other, and we don’t participate in that stuff.”
Now, Bryant’s hope is that Lakers fans will be just as accepting of James:
“To represent me and the Mamba mentality and what we’ve done … it’s about purple and gold … I bleed purple and gold … we all need to bleed purple and gold,” he said. “It’s about the Lakers organization and all that embodies … it’s not about individual players.”
Bryant declared James a great Laker, and urged everyone to finally treat him as such.
“When LeBron came to Los Angeles, he is now a Laker, he is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way,” he said.
For the most part, that seems to be MO that Lakers fans have adopted over the last two years, but their loyalty to the franchise as opposed to Bryant will be tested for the first time later this month. We’ll see what the general response, but hopefully it’s positive.