NBA: Kobe, LeBron square off today

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 7, 2009

By Mark Heisler
Los Angeles Times
Whose time is this again?
Here they are this afternoon, on national TV this time, LeBron James, 24, vs. Kobe Bryant, 30, the future vs. the past.
Handy as this is for headlines, marquees and commercials, it leaves out one important thing: the present.
It’s a funny thing about eras: They’re not awarded, they’re won.
Between 1997 and 1999, Utah’s Karl Malone won two MVPs to Michael Jordan’s one. Jordan’s Bulls won the ’97 and ’98 titles, the last of their six, which is why no one talks about a Mailman Era.
If James, currently the front-runner, becomes the MVP, it won’t matter a bit if Bryant’s Lakers win the title.
Era-wise, Bryant now has all the advantages, starting with the team he’s on, the youngest, deepest superpower around.
James’ humble Cavaliers are in the East, with Boston and Orlando, where they are not only challenged but disrespected at every turn, as when the Magic and Celtics got a combined five All-Stars to their one.
Not that this rankles them but when Orlando’s Jameer Nelson went down, they got all excited about the prospect of Mo Williams finally getting picked ó only to see Boston’s Ray Allen chosen, making it 6-1.
“That’s how they always treat us,” said James. “They wouldn’t take me if they didn’t have to.”
(The Celtics think they’re disrespected, too, in favor of the Lakers, but at least they have the good taste not to mention it daily.)
Meanwhile, Bryant’s Lakers are in the West, now starting to look more like it did in the ’80s when the Showtime Lakers dominated it.
Bryant is also playing at the very top of his game, which is up there with that of anyone who ever played.
Although Bryant idolized Jordan, as a young player he always hated being compared to him. He didn’t want to be like Mike, but to surpass him, which wasn’t seemly to mention.
The comparison was stupid for another reason: It wasn’t close.
As great players go, Jordan was a maestro. Bryant was a thrill ride.
Jordan shot 49.7 percent for his career, to go with his five MVPs, six titles and 10 scoring titles.
Bryant has never shot 47 percent for a season ó although he’s at a career-high 47.6 percent now ó because not even Jordan would take many of the shots Kobe takes.
For sheer lightning-bolt brilliance, however, nobody could match Bryant, who routinely did things not even Jordan had. With Shaquille O’Neal gone after 2004 and Kobe on his own, it began to happen a lot.
That 61-point game last week that broke the Madison Square Garden record and got everyone in New York in a tizzy?
That’s 20 below Bryant’s Staples Center record. A month before that, he got 62 in three quarters.
For the entire month of January that season, he averaged 43.4 points.
Those were actually the bad times, when it looked like he would never win another title, after having won three by the time he was 23.
It took a turnaround that was stunning even for him, going from raging at the Lakers organization in the spring of 2007 to MVP in the spring of 2008.
It has largely been lost, but this is a new Kobe, oblivious to personal achievements (unless he’s in Madison Square Garden), often volunteering to spend the night hounding James or Dwyane Wade on defense, rather than shooting it out with them.
Still, after he went for 61 Monday night, ESPN’s Jim Rome held a discussion of the topic: “Bryant: Will be become a ball hog?”
Rome: “Is this part of the evolution? Is he a better teammate? Is he a better leader? Is he going to share the ball or is he not going to trust anyone else, take it upon himself and try and get them there by himself?”
Eric Adelson, ESPN: “I think there is no evolution. I think Lakers fans see this and it’s entertaining, it’s great, but they know if he gets more points, the team suffers.”
If Bryant gets a fourth title, he may be anointed Jordan’s peer, or perhaps the best ever, whether that’s fair to Jordan or not, since six is still more than four.
For Bryant, who was demonized for years, as in 2006 when he was scorched for not shooting in Game 7 in Phoenix, that’s how much the world has changed.
You couldn’t say his trip hasn’t changed him. If you knew him as the golden child at 18, boyish, poised, serene in his belief in himself, you might say it changed him more than it ever changed anyone.
Reduced to the consistency of charcoal by the events of recent years, he now deals with reporters only in groups. No local writer has had a one-on-one in years.
In China last summer, with easy availability at U.S. practices, I asked about his days of rage, or as I put it, as gently as I could, “the period when your life was difficult.”
“My life has never been difficult,” he said, beaming as if nothing could be further from the truth, cutting off that route of inquiry.
OK, maybe he just had a headache all that week.
Whether he understands it or not, he’s moving beyond cheap shots and bad notices. One more title and the people who bashed him for everything that went wrong will explain away anything he does wrong.
It won’t ever get any better than this, at his peak, with a rising power and the world to be won. He has known good times and bad times, but these are the best times.