It’s been nearly two decades since LeBron James first took the court against Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, and he still remembers exactly what it felt like.
“I was just in awe. It’s a guy who, along with a lot of other guys, that I would tape on my wall when I lived in Spring Hill, in apartment 602. He was on my wall, and he had a nice collage on my wall,” James said.
There was a reason for his reverence, and it went beyond how talented Bryant was, or the stylistic appreciation James had for his game. It was also that Bryant was someone James could look up to, a path for him to follow as he chased his basketball dreams.
“He’s a guy who decided to make the jump from high school to the NBA, so he was someone that when I kind of was thinking about doing that at one point during my junior year... It was just ‘hey, if Kobe’s done it, he’s someone I can hopefully learn from one day, along with KG (Kevin Garnett) and T-Mac (Tracy McGrady),” James said.
It’s why the first time he went up against Bryant and the Lakers must have felt like he’d walked straight into one of those posters on his wall in that childhood apartment.
“If you remember, the guy gave me a pair of his shoes when I was a junior in high school, and to be able to share the floor with him was, like it is for any kid that (aspires to be like) someone, just a sense of awe. The grace that he played the game with, and that passion that he played the game with. The determination to go out and just dominate you was something that I loved,” James said. “I was like ‘I could pick up from that.’
“There’s not much dialogue at all, as you guys know, Kobe, he’s not on the floor to talk to anybody. He’s out there to kill you. He’s out there to dethrone you. He’s out there to really stranglehold you,” James continued. “It was just an awe moment. It was something that I will never, ever forget, and to be able to grace the floor with someone that played the game with so much grace.”
But when asked by Rachel Nichols of ESPN about if he remembered any specific moments from that first game, whether it was a one-on-one matchup with Bryant, or a spectacular move Bryant made, James may have finally revealed the limits of his legendary, borderline-eidetic memory.
“I mean, I’m so old now, Rachel. For you to try to ask me something that happened 18 years ago... I could tell you what bottle of wine I had last night, but 18 years ago is a little bit challenging,” James said with a smile.
“But I can sit here and tell you that (a moment like that) absolutely, definitely happened. When it happened, was I on defense, was I on offense, I have no idea. But it definitely happened,” James continued. “There was a couple guys that when you were on the floor with for the first time — it was Kobe, it was A.I. (Allen Iverson) and it was T-Mac — it was those three guys that you were just like ‘wow, I made it. I’m here with these guys and I can’t believe it.’”
For Davis, the game that stood out so much that he misremembered it as his first time facing Bryant — it was not — was a 2015 showdown in New Orleans. The Pelicans won the game, and Bryant tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Davis could tell instantly that something was wrong.
“He was holding his shoulder when he went and drove to the basket. I was like, man, ‘something is wrong with his shoulder,’” Davis remembered thinking to himself while watching from the bench. “Timeout, and then he comes back into the game and I’m like, ‘He’s tough. He’s still going to continue to play.’ And he comes down the very next play, they throw the ball down to him in the post and I think Dante Cunningham is guarding him. He takes two dribbles and does a shimmy and shoots the ball left-handed and it goes in.
“I just kind of stared at him down the court and looked at the bench, and was just amazed that a guy who is right-handed comes in and says, ‘Okay, I’m just going to shoot left-handed and play left-handed.’ That’s one of my earliest memories in the league of Kobe.”
How serious was the injury? It later required season-ending surgery, but at the time, Kobe dropped one of the most “Kobe” quotes of his career while talking about playing through it left-handed.
“I’ve played on a torn labrum before,” Bryant said then. “I’m not too concerned about it.”
And in a way only he could, Bryant even had jokes about it on Twitter, apparently so unbothered by the malady that he used it as an opportunity to plug his sports drink.
That was just how Bryant was, and it clearly made an impression on Davis, one of the rare players he chose to take under his wing and someone whose talent Bryant clearly respected. The admiration was mutual, but Davis also remembered being a little too nervous to say anything to Bryant during the game.
“I was on the bench, so the game kept going on, but I didn’t say anything to him. I was just amazed that he would attempt a shot like that,” Davis said.
Given Bryant’s legendary, Michael Jordan-esque ability to manufacture slights, that was probably a good call on Davis’ part. But both his and James’ recollections are just reminders that there will never be another NBA star quite like Bryant. And as we approach the one-year anniversary of his tragic passing, these lighter, quintessentially Kobe moments that made Lakers fans fall in love with him are worth remembering amidst the grief.
What was your favorite Kobe moment? Let us know in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.