THE UPPER HAND
This makes two Christmases since Justin Timberlake, narrating Nike’s “Dream Season 23 & 24” before Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were to meet in the 2009 NBA Finals, warbled:
“As these friends grow closer to a showdown, you have to wonder, what are they thinking?”
Of course, the way it turned out, how about:
“We’re thinking you geniuses may want to wait until we’re IN the Finals.”
In 2009, the NBA wound up with Kobe versus Orlando’s Dwight Howard, all five anticlimactic games of it.
In a rare show of restraint last spring, Nike didn’t make a new documercial or even rerun “23 & 24,” but may just have been waiting for the conference finals.
Unfortunately, Cleveland didn’t get that far, whereupon James banished it from the face of the earth.
Actually, the city is still there, no thanks to LeBron, who abandoned it for Miami, as he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh planned, where he’s No. 6 in the program, if lower in many hearts.
After years of being “The One,” LeBron is now as reviled as Kobe was ... before Kobe won titles No. 4 and 5 and became as exalted as LeBron was.
They’re more like antitheses than rivals. If one is up, the other is down.
LeBron’s celebrated arrival in 2003 coincided with Kobe’s fall from grace.
Kobe’s miracle comeback -- his 2008 MVP award followed by titles in 2009 and 2010 -- coincided with LeBron’s fall from grace.
They’re actually the same guy one generation apart, having arrived as child superstars, to be adored, hounded and cocooned within tiny inner circles that have a tenuous connection to the outside world.
In a chapter of history left unrecorded, in part because LeBron won’t talk about it, he didn’t stab anyone in the back
After seven seasons in Cleveland, when he could have left in four, he went to the end, trying to figure out how to stay, asking star after star -- Bosh, Wade, Chris Paul -- to join him.
Myriad sources involved in last July’s far-flung process say it was only after LeBron couldn’t bring in help that he turned to Plan B, as in Bananas.
More sources involved at other levels confirm parts of the story.
A Toronto source says Bosh turned down a Raptors offer to trade him to Cleveland, which would have given him a max deal, $10 million bigger than the one he took in Miami.
A New Orleans source says the Cavaliers pursued Paul, one of James’ closest friends, who would have been overjoyed to go.
Unfortunately, with Paul signed through 2012, the Hornets wouldn’t have taken the entire Cavaliers roster for him.
James didn’t make his decision until Bosh told him he was going to Miami with Wade ... who had almost bolted for Chicago, taking Bosh, before yielding to pleas by Heat President Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison.
With Chicago trying to dump Luol Deng for enough cap room to sign Wade, Bosh and James, Riley’s hair went from Gordon Gekko brown in “Wall Street” to Gekko silver in “Wall Street 2,” worrying the Bulls would hit the jackpot.
Not that LeBron will acknowledge any of this.
Being LeBron, who doesn’t look back or make excuses... apart from the fact that Bosh, his teammate, is the reason they’re not in Cleveland together now.
This leads to dialogue with the media, like this Thursday in Phoenix:
Q: “A lot of people say you tried to stay to the end, talking to players, trying to get them to come.”
James: “Well, you know, there were a lot of things that went on, but at the end, I thought this was the best situation for me and that’s why I decided to come.”
Q: “Are the things I mentioned true? Did that stuff happen?”
James, laughing: “Well, just like I just said, there were a lot of things that went on.”
LeBron handled questions about his injured right elbow in the Boston series the same way ... which is why he was accused of quitting.
If LeBron can handle being vilified, there are signs of the toll it has taken.
At the moment, he isn’t talking to ESPN -- ironic, given the lengths to which it has gone to identify itself with him -- after some of its pundits ripped his misbegotten TV special ... on their network.
Last week, after answering fans’ taunts in Madison Square Garden with a triple-double, he talked to the Knicks’ house network while, a few feet away, ESPN interviewed Wade.
If Kobe and LeBron love being who they are, it’s not easy being who they are.
Kobe used to be No. 8, and is still called “Ocho” on the beat.
At 32, Kobe worries privately about his legacy -- while continuing to fence with the press that has turned into a chorus, singing “O come let us adore you.”
Shaquille O’Neal, who staged press boycotts annually, was shrewd enough to pick his spots, turning 7-foot comic in the Finals.
Bryant does it backward, bristling as questions become more formulaic ... as at big events, like last spring’s Finals, when he looked as if he had flat-lined when asked about the rivalry with the Celtics.
Then, when it was over, he revealed he cared all along!
Being Kobe, with the national press at practice Thursday and Friday, he didn’t talk.
I once noted he hadn’t done a one-on-one interview locally for years. His publicist, whom I hadn’t met, introduced herself, pointing out the one he did with the Orange County Register’s Art Thompson.
That was it, though.
The publicist, one of Kobe’s three since he took his account away from the Lakers’ P.R. staff, has since left.
He definitely got bashed. The game’s best player when it began, post-Shaq, it continued through last spring with Matt Taibbi’s “demented-three-faced-narcissist” line in Rolling Stone and charges of “pouting” while playing hurt in the Oklahoma City series.
Nevertheless, he has won, having reached heights few players ever saw, and he’s not done.
His five titles are tied with Derek Fisher for the most of anyone active (and the reason Shaq, who has four, will play until he’s 50 if he can).
Kobe’s problem now is the persona he adopted in the bad times -- Mamba, the nickname he delights in, painted on his weapon in that wantonly violent Black Ops commercial.
It’s a crazy world, indeed, but these are the good times, and there aren’t all that many left.
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