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Column: You know who won’t be upset when LeBron James passes Kobe Bryant in scoring? Kobe

LeBron James flexes for the crowd during a game against the Hornets on Oct. 27 at Staples Center.
LeBron James flexes for the crowd during a game against the Hornets on Oct. 27 at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sometime in the next few games, what was once considered unimaginable will drop through a net and into reality.

A man wearing a Lakers jersey will pass Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list.

LeBron James will officially plant his purple and gold flag by scoring his 33,644th point, moving him past Bryant and into third place on the scoring list.

At which point, all Laker hell will break loose.

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LeBron fans will trumpet this as final proof that he’s the greatest player to ever wear a Lakers uniform. Kobe fans will argue that basketball greatness is about far more than career statistics.

Here’s how things should shake out for All-Star selections. LeBron and Giannis are no-brainers as are the top five in the West. It’s murky from there.

There will be Twitter fights. There will be hot takes. There will be murals drawn, memes created, and days of the sort of fierce debate that a certain young No. 8 would have once embraced.

Yet one man preaching generosity and perspective is an older and wiser Kobe Bryant.

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We talked on the phone this week during one of his breaks from running his Costa Mesa-based multimedia content company. I asked if he had a message for this city full of folks who will be indignant that James’ name even appears in the same sentence as the hallowed Mamba.

He laughed. He sighed.

“Just stop,” he said.

The man once called selfish in this column space — OK, maybe more than once — said he hopes his fans realize any celebration of Lakers greatness is about something far bigger than him.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant played his entire 20-year career with the Lakers.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

“To represent me and the Mamba mentality and what we’ve done … it’s about purple and gold … I bleed purple and gold … we all need to bleed purple and gold,” he said. “It’s about the Lakers organization and all that embodies … it’s not about individual players.”

Bryant declared James a great Laker, and urged everyone to finally treat him as such.

“When LeBron came to Los Angeles, he is now a Laker, he is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way,” he said.

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And, by the way, he acknowledged the dude is doing something pretty amazing, and urged everyone to give props.

“You got to celebrate … appreciate what he is as an athlete while he is here” he said. “Appreciate this guy, celebrate what he’s done, because it’s truly remarkable.”

Not that he still won’t feel a twinge of discomfort that this kid who once sought his guidance as a high school senior has now played long enough to score that many points.

From players on the roster to their coaches and observers, there is a general consensus about this Lakers team. They really like each other.

“I was told he was 35 and I’m like, when the hell did that happen?” said Bryant, 41. “It’s kind of crazy when he’s the veteran of the league and, in my eyes, he’s still one of the youngest. That means I’m the double OG, man. That makes me Gandalf-ish.”

While James will probably pass Bryant sometime in their next four road games — James trails by 80 points — he could conceivably hit the number in two ensuing games at Staples Center.

If that happens, Bryant could show up courtside and … no, not a chance. Bryant knows his presence could make it awkward for James. He wants this next great Laker to have his moment.

“I won’t go to the game,” Bryant said. “I’d rather that be about him.”

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But later that night, he will be one of the first people to ring him up.

“I’ll for sure call him and tell him congratulations,” Bryant said. “I’m so happy for ‘Bron, all he’s accomplished and continues to accomplish, he’s been great.”

Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James battle for the ball during a game Christmas Day at Staples Center.
Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James battle for the ball during a game Christmas Day at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Confession time. This column was originally planned as a passionate defense of Bryant’s basketball legacy in Los Angeles. I was going to cite him, not James, as the one player I’d want on the floor in a must-win game.

I was going to write that even if James wins three titles here, he will never match 20 years of a competitive on-court greatness that was so influential, Bryant changed the way an entire town viewed success for our sports teams.

Before Bryant’s championship-or-bust attitude arrived — that Mamba mentality — folks seemed content for the Lakers to entertain, for the Dodgers to contend, for others to just compete. Now, anything short of a title for anyone is loudly trumpeted as a complete failure.

“I think that mentality when I was playing, it made a lot of people uncomfortable, the things I would say, like, if we blew the NBA Finals, it was a failure of a season,” he acknowledged this week. “But that’s the right way to compete, that’s the reality of it, and I think this helped change the perspective of some our fans in our city. You don’t want to be a Finals losers, you want to win the whole damn thing.”

So, yeah, I was going to focus this column on an on-court legacy that contained five rings and will surely never be challenged in this town by anyone since, even perhaps the greatest player ever.

Chill, Bryant said.

“I’m comfortable with the 20 years and moving on,” he said, noting his legacy didn’t feel threatened. “People tend to misconstrue my competitiveness and that of other athletes as well. They think, they’re competitors, they don’t want the person coming up behind them to pass them or break their records, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Just because an NBA team isn’t making a playing push, that doesn’t mean it might not kick the tires and contemplate life with a different cast.

He added: “If you’re playing together on the court, that’s a competition. But when you have done whatever you can do and now you move on from that, you don’t wish bad on other athletes because you’re trying to preserve whatever idea you think people have of your legacy. To me that’s very immature and juvenile. For me, it’s just the opposite.”

Bryant said he not only appreciates James and other current stars, he cheers for them.

“I want to see people do well, I want to see them do better than anything I’ve ever done; that’s just the way it should be,” Bryant said.

He said he hears the debates and, while he understands, he can’t relate.

“I chuckle about them, it’s funny because people get so passionate over it. I understand, you’re fans, it’s a debate culture, that will never, ever stop,” he said. “But for us as athletes, myself and ‘Bron and all the other guys, we appreciate each other, and we don’t participate in that stuff.”

Bryant doesn’t want fans watching James and comparing him unfavorably to someone like himself. He knows that feeling, back when he and Shaquille O’Neal were always compared to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who sits atop the all-time scoring list.

“As a city, we’ve been so spoiled, we’ve had so many all-time greats put on purple and gold, we feel like we can minimize people that are currently playing; it happened to me with the whole Magic thing,” he said. “We should appreciate athletes while they are here. We are getting the opportunity to see ‘Bron and Anthony Davis every single night, that stuff is not normal, you know what I’m saying? Appreciate that stuff.”

So as part of a torch gets passed, far from feeling burned, an older and wiser Bryant says he’s thankful to have even touched the flame and lived in its warmth. His fans can feel free to shower all their love on James, he says, because he’s had plenty.

“It’s been crazy, watch this city grow and growing with it, I remember when L.A. Live was just a parking lot,” he said. “I feel such an appreciation, I can never pay the city back for what it’s given me.”

About this, he says, there’s no debate.


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