Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star LeBron James blames himself for depriving the NBA of a showdown between Kobe Bryant and James in the 2009 Finals.
“I know the world wanted to see it,” said James to reporters on Tuesday. “I wanted it. We wanted it. He held up his end and I didn’t hold up my end, and I hate that that didn’t happen.”
James and the Cavaliers finished the 2008-09 regular season with 66 wins, one more than the Lakers. While the Lakers advanced in the playoffs through the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, the Cavaliers were stopped in the Eastern Conference Finals by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
The Lakers went on to defeat the Magic, and then the Boston Celtics the following season. The Cavaliers were knocked out in the second round in the 2010 postseason.
James had taken the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, falling to the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep. The Lakers went to the next three Finals but haven’t returned since 2010. James joined the Miami Heat for four-straight appearances and two championships.
Last season James re-signed with the Cavaliers but fell short in the Finals to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Dating back to 2007, either Bryant or James advanced to the Finals, but never to face each other.
“We’ve always competed against one another, and we always wanted to dethrone each other,” said James. “We always had that mutual respect, because we knew how much we put into the game. I’ve always voiced my opinion about ... how great Kobe is, and obviously there will never be another one of him in our league -- ever.”
Lakers star Kobe Bryant pauses for a moment as confetti streams down at the Staples Center following his final game on April 13, 2016. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant, the teenager obtained by the Lakers in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets, takes part in an ad shoot for Adidas at Will Rogers State Beach. (Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant was already shooting his first commercial before taking his first shot for the Lakers. (Los Angeles Times)
Laker rookie Kobe Bryant, 18, listens to coach Del Harris during a break in a 129-99 victory over the Washington Bullets at the Forum. Bryant scored 13 points. (Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant drives against Utah center Greg Ostertag in the Western Conference Finals at the Forum in Inglewood. Utah won 109-98 to give the Jazz a 3-0 lead in the series. (Paul Morse / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant is dejected after losing the ball late in the second half of Game 3 of the 1999 Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs at the Forum. The Lakers lost, 103-91, giving the Spurs a 3-0 advantage in the series. The Spurs went on to win the series 4-0. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant drives past Chris Webber in Game 4 of the first round of the 2000 Western Conference playoffs at Arco Arena in Sacramento. The Kings won, 101-88, but the Lakers went on to win the series in five games and advanced to face the Phoenix Suns in the next round. (Bob Galbraith / Associated Press)
Despite Jason Kidd’s hand in his face, Kobe Bryant puts up the winning shot in the Lakers’ 97-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Arena. The Lakers won the series, 4-1. (K.C. Alfred / Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had a moment to relax after winning their first title together in the 2000 NBA Finals. The two kicked back after a 116-111 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 at Staples Center. Bryant is holding the championship trophy and O’Neal has his Finals MVP trophy. (Paul Morse / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant performs on stage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood in 2000 during a celebration of the launch of his record label, Heads High Entertainment. (Clarence Williams / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant is swarmed by teammates Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal as he heads to the foul line in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Bryant scored 45 points as the Lakers beat the Spurs, 104-90, on their way to a sweep of the series. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant goes up for a dunk in the second quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game 3 of the 2001 Western Conference finals at Staples Center. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers players Kobe Bryant, left, Lindsey Hunter and Shaquille O’Neal celebrate their NBA title victory over the New Jersey Nets on June 12, 2002. (Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant, with his wife, Vanessa, at his side, holds a news conference at Staples Center in 2003 to discuss accusations by a 19-year-old Colorado woman that he sexually assaulted her. He conceded he was guilty of adultery, but he declared he was innocent of charges of felonious sexual assault. The charges were later dropped. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Lakers Karl Malone, left, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Shaquille O’Neal before their preseason opener with the Los Angeles Clippers. It was Bryant’s first game since sexual assault charges were filed against him in Colorado. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant, left, looks at his defense attorney Pamela Mackey as he is advised by Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett during his felony sexual assault hearing in Eagle, Colo., on Aug. 6, 2003. (Barry Gutierrez / Associated Press)
Hours after pleading not guilty to a felony sexual assault charge in Colorado, an exhausted Kobe Bryant is congratulated by teammate Derek Fisher after the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs, 98-90, in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals at the Staples Center. Bryant scored 42 points as the Lakers tied the series at 2-2. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant writhes in pain after injuring his right ankle during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 13, 2005, in Los Angeles. Bryant was injured when he landed awkwardly on his right foot while going for a rebound under the Cavaliers’ basket and had to be helped off the court. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant and his new backcourt partner, William “Smush” Parker, during a 2005 preseason game against Utah at the Anaheim Pond. (Los Angeles Times)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant stands next to coach Phil Jackson during a playoff game against the Phoenix Suns in April 2006. (Matt York / Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant walks off the court with his wife, Vanessa, and daughter Natalia after scoring a career-high 81 points in a Lakers win over the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center on Jan. 22, 2006. (Noah Graham / NBAE/Getty Images)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant scores in front of Toronto’s Matt Bonner on his way to scoring 81 points during the Lakers’ 122-104 victory on Jan. 22, 2006. (Matt A. Brown / Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant celebrates the Lakers’ victory over the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant celebrates after winning his fourth NBA title following the Lakers’ win over the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals. (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant celebrates the Lakers’ Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant holds the NBA championship trophy during the team’s 2010 NBA title victory parade. (David McNew / Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant shows off what he can do with a basketball during an event in Milan, Italy, in September 2011. (Luca Bruno / Associated Press)
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant goes up for a shot over New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler during a game in December 2011. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
U.S. players Kevin Durant, left, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant celebrate after winning the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. (Charles Krupa / Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant writhes in pain after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 12, 2013. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant warms up before playing against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 8, 2013, in his first game back from a torn Achilles tendon. (Harry How / Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant is congratulated by teammates after passing Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 14, 2014. (Jeff Wheeler / TNS)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant goes to hug his family after his final NBA game on April 13, 2016. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant poses with his family after getting his jerseys retired before a game between the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on Dec. 18, 2017. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant walks off the court after his jersey retirement ceremony at the Staples Center in 2017. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant smiles after winning an Academy Award for best animated short film for “Dear Basketball” on March 4, 2018. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant shares a laugh with his daughter Gianna while attending a women’s basketball game between Long Beach State and Oregon on Dec. 14, 2019. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant watches a tribute video at Staples Center before the final game of his career on April 13, 2016. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
On Sunday, Bryant announced he’ll retire after his 20th season with the Lakers.
“To know that it’s coming to an end is truly said for me,” said James. “I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant.
“I knew he was in the gym, and I knew he was working on his game. ... So every day that I didn’t want to work out, or every day I felt like I couldn’t give me, I always thought of Kobe.”
The Lakers (2-14) don’t visit Cleveland until Feb. 10. The Cavaliers (13-4) visit the Lakers at Staples Center on March 10.
On Tuesday, gambling website Bovada gave the Lakers’ 500-1 odds to win the West and 1,000-1 to take home the title in June (longer odds than the scant 100-1 given before the start of the season).
The Cavaliers are 1-3 favorites to advance to the Finals with 13-5 odds to win it all, behind Golden State’s 3-2 advantage.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.