Until LeBron James wins a title, Kobe Bryant reigns

By Mike Wise
Thursday, May 13, 2010; D01

Toying with the city of Cleveland's fragile psyche, calling the NBA's reigning MVP "LeGone" James would just be piling on, rubbing in salt. Besides, that would be predicated on LeBron first being somewhere.

For all the numbers, for all the surreal passes and forays above the rim, the most breathtaking young player in the game is still at base camp in the legacy game. LeBron is gazing longingly toward the top of the mountain, where Kobe Bryant is about to plant a flag.

After consecutive MVP awards, let's look at the r?sum? that matters: Rings? Zilch. NBA Finals wins? In his lone appearance three years ago, bupkis; four and out to the San Antonio Spurs.

And to put a bow on what might soon become a seven-year career of unfulfilled championship promise, LeBron's Cavaliers, the best team in pro basketball this season, are one game from bowing out in the second round against essentially three old guys with knee braces who Rajon Rondo found at the Dorchester Y.

At 25, LeBron is in danger of becoming the NBA's Alex Ovechkin -- heavenly regular season, hellish playoff finale.

We're all witnesses, all right -- witnesses to Phil Knight's Great American Hyperbole Machine, where we sop up commercials as reality.

Witness to 3 for 14 in front of your home crowd.

Witness to passivity, flat-out in-game apathy, unbecoming a player of LeBron's Hall of Fame caliber.

"He didn't even play," said Tim Legler, an ESPN analyst and former NBA guard. "He wasn't engaged. I've never seen a star-caliber athlete that uninvolved in a big game. It's like a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning audibling out of a third-and-eight passing down and just handing the ball off. Or Reggie Jackson taking three called strikes and not swinging.

"At one point after he spotted up in the corner, I saw him holding onto his shorts and bending over. I could not believe what I was watching was a guy not into the game."

Legler could only come to one conclusion: Stress. LeBron felt the pressure of having to carry a franchise by himself, which Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen don't have to. If one of them has a bad game, the Celtics can still win. If LeBron lays an egg like Game 5, it's over.

Because Commissioner David Stern and his broadcast partners are very good at what they do, there is a tendency to make this NBA postseason simply about LeBron vs. Kobe, much the way it was once about Michael vs. Magic in 1990 -- the young buck finally on the cusp of unseating the old champion.

But such a hoped-for showdown not only disrespects the Celtics, Magic and Suns, it completely short-changes Kobe.

He will be 32 in August. Since Tim Duncan (34) and Shaquille O'Neal (38) are not getting any younger, chances are Kobe is going to break the tie among the three most accomplished players of the post-Jordan generation (LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have been to only two NBA Finals between them) for championship rings.

It's "the Race for Five" or "One for the Thumb."

Because rings are used as measuring sticks for legacies (see Bill Russell's 11, Jordan's six and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's eight combined), this is huge. Shaq told me so a year ago. "One more ring equals Magic and that would mean the world to me," O'Neal said. Since LeBron is the main reason the Daddy would get his fifth, and maybe Tony Parker and Manu Gin?bili will have as much or more to do with the Spurs winning a fifth than Duncan if that ever happens, really this comes down to Kobe's legacy. He is still the top banana on his team.

Kobe won his first title at 21 years old, although Shaq was the best player on that Lakers team.

Yes, he learned to win at the game's highest level like LeBron is learning to win at the game's highest level, like Jordan once learned. But after that defining Game 5 in Detroit in 2007 that seemed to mark the beginning of the "LeBron as NBA Poster Child" era, he has yet to get back to the Finals. Unimportant individual numbers and awards aside, is the Kobe comparison fair anymore?

"You know who woke up the happiest guy in life when the sun came up today?" Legler asked. "Kobe. Because there was a general consensus that LeBron had surpassed Kobe as the best player in the game a year ago. Kobe Bryant wakes up today, watches LeBron get killed for a week after they go down to Boston -- and I think they will -- and Kobe is thinking, 'I told y'all, it's not that easy, is it?' "

See, the problem with being referred to as "King James" since high school is that at some point people actually expect you to climb atop the throne. Seize the scepter from Kobe, who eventually took it from Michael Jordan.

And nothing about LeBron's play in Game 5 bespoke of royalty on Tuesday night, not even close. If you don't win that game, you at least have to show up and not let a long-in-the-tooth team such as the Celtics blow your doors off at home.

If Thursday is indeed the last game for LeBron in a Cavaliers uniform, if free agency takes him to Manhattan or Brooklyn or beyond, the emotionally wounded sports fan in Cleveland who hasn't won a major championship since the Browns in 1964 -- must be feeling like a lot of America's hoopers and 'ballers long awaiting Kobe vs. LeBron:

Let down. Betrayed. Sold a bill of goods by Nike and everyone else pushing LeBron to be the chosen one, it now appears, too soon.

"I don't want to throw a blanket on it, because it was just one game and I love LeBron for many reasons as a player," Legler said. "But this was such a defining game in his career. And his mind just seems very muddled, distracted, almost unengaged."

Unless LeBron has something left in his tank we didn't see in Game 5, it's time to face facts: He's not yet ready to be king.

And whether he leaves Cleveland or not, he should not have fussed so much earlier this season about whether to ditch the No. 23 because he believes Michael's old number is too hallowed.

Right now he should worry about not switching to the Nos. 8 or 24, because that would be very disrespectful to Kobe, almost as disrespectful as someone comparing the two players' legacies at this point in LeBron James's title-less career.

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