LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and the Myth of Media Narrative

This piece is co-written with J.M. Poulard of TrueHoop Network sister site WarriorsWorld. What started as a friendly exchange of e-mails and thoughts on media coverage developed into… well, whatever this is.

For the past three or four years, the Kobe-LeBron debate has been at the forefront of NBA discussions as players, coaches, experts, fans and media members have all shared their opinions on which player they thought was better. James has owned Bryant in their head-to-head regular season match-ups, whereas the Black Mamba has won the proverbial games that matter, helping the Los Angeles Lakers earn the last two NBA titles. These players have never once competed against each other in the playoffs and yet will be linked with one another for the rest of their careers.

Tupac Shakur’s Hit ‘Em Up will always be mentioned with Biggie’s Who Shot Ya, much like Jay-Z’s Takeover will always be in the same conversation as Nas’s Ether. We might just have a new addition to the list that involves how we perceive and remember LeBron James and Kobe Bryant: The Decision

LeBron James Kobe Bryant Miami Heat Los Angeles Lakers

Devin: Possibly no off-court occurrence in NBA history rocked the basketball world as much as LeBron James’s now infamous one-hour television special “The Decision” last July 8th. Along with the obvious basketball ramifications – LeBron was teaming up with one superstar and one all-star in the quest for a ring – LeBron’s decision allowed people to take their talents for comedy (and hatred) to new levels, and set up an entirely new era of media coverage in basketball. From the unprecedented (and fantastic) Heat Index to the continuous stream of written grenades thrown by jilted sportswriters, the LeBron James story is no longer about LeBron James. Rather, LBJ has become a one-man spectacle in the last eight months, pushing pageviews to any writer who takes him to task.

As Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak reminded me recently, competition is set up in a binary. You either win and you’re great, or you lose and you’re forgettable. Basketball is no stranger to this trap. There is no middle ground, no shades of gray. As the way competition is structured, such the coverage of the competition. Unthinkably, the narrative has been rewritten: LeBron has been thrust into the role of the “villain,” and to counter-balance, his alleged “arch-nemesis” Kobe Bryant has become the hero.

It’s beef to the fullest – except they don’t get to write their songs.

J.M.: And yet, the funny thing about Bryant is that although he is perceived as the hero of this story, he is a flawed one. He is often accused of ignoring his teammates and at times seems to be too enamored with playing the role of a hero. His most die-hard fans would have us believe that we should never second-guess his greatness, given the results that he has produced over the years. They have a point. But much like Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Kobe is the hero that the NBA deserves, but not the one they need. He’s given the basketball world everything they could have ever expected from him and then some, and yet our hero always seems to be missing something to complete the puzzle.

He has the championship hardware, the individual accolades, and most importantly, the respect of his peers. Yet, on the heels of winning his fifth championship last summer, he took a backseat to LeBron James’ free agency extravaganza. No matter what, it’s as if the villain continues to take center stage at the expense of our hero regardless of his achievements.

Which begs the question: has a villain ever won a war in which he lost all of its biggest battles?

Devin: Well there’s no doubt he’s winning the coverage war. Win or lose (especially lose), the Heat are everywhere – and without LeBron James, they wouldn’t be. The Lakers, on the other hand, haven’t received that type of national attention. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still plastered on websites & newspapers worldwide, but they’re not the story anymore; it was all about LeBron James this summer and all about Miami these days. Isn’t that wild? Kobe Bryant is chasing his sixth championship ring, to tie the greatest player of all time, and that storyline isn’t being pushed as much as a Heat five-game losing streak.

I don’t think LeBron is actually a villain, much like I don’t think Kobe’s actually a hero (and in reality, there are serious questions to his value). But after the negative backlash to The Decision, in the mind of the binary viewer, someone had to fill the role of the anti-LeBron. Considering how many feuds had occurred because of those two already, Kobe was just the natural fit. He hasn’t changed his game at all, he hasn’t positioned himself any differently as a player, hell, the Lakers are 0-2 against the Heat this year. But none of those facts trump an overarching narrative.

Until the playoffs, anyway.

J.M.: None of them are quite what we make them out to be. However, the focus has seemingly changed since July 8th. The public opinion was that LeBron had quit against the Celtics in the playoffs, and then quit on the city on the Cleveland; whereas Kobe Bryant had remained Los Angeles’ superstar through good times and bad, thus giving him the King’s crown. Fans casually forgot that Bryant had quit in Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns in the 2006 first round playoffs and that he had requested to be traded in 2007, using his no-trade clause to determine his fate until the Lakers brought in Pau Gasol.

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are more similar than we would care to admit. Both joined the league straight out of high school and both were asked to be great. They managed to do so throughout their respective careers all the while taking their lumps with fans and the media. Bryant and James have both taken huge hits to their respective public images, but the Black Mamba’s popularity seems to have increased at the expense of the Chosen One’s. But, as you said, we do not really have any hero or villain in this story. This year’s postseason might help design the scripture of how we perceive these players head to head in NBA history…

…well, at least until next season.