But speaking with ESPN on Tuesday, King James said that knowing this is the Black Mamba's final season is "truly sad" for him for an entirely different reason than you'd expect.
"I didn't hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us, to meet in the Finals," James said, referring to how his 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers failed to punch their ticket to the championship round to face Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers that year. "I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, we wanted it. He held up his end and I didn't hold up my end, and I hate that. I hate that that didn't happen."
James's Cavs had a league-best 66-16 record that season with Bryant's Lakers right behind him at 65-17. Nike even made an ad anticipating the dream Finals' matchup. But it was not to be, as Bryant led the Lakers to the Finals, but James's Cavs fell to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals that year.
That escaped opportunity still bites James, especially since he grew up revering Bryant, who is seven years older, for different reasons than he did Michael Jordan.
"I mean, in high school I wore a nappy-a** Afro because of Kobe Bryant," James continued telling ESPN. "Because he wore it. I wanted to be just like him, man. And I always said my inspiration came from Jordan, but I always thought Jordan was so out of this world that I could never get there. Kobe was someone that I just always kind of wanted to be like and play like."
James, a two-time NBA champion, finds himself chasing Bryant's five rings. He said that Bryant particularly inspired him to intensify his workout regimen in pursuit of being the best.
"It was someone that I always knew I had to be in the gym," James said. "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. And I knew he was great. So every day that I didn't want to work out or every day I felt like I couldn't give more, I always thought of Kobe.
"Because I knew that he was getting better and I was like, 'Man, if you take a day off, he's going to take advantage of it. You cannot take a day off. You cannot take a day off,'" he added. "And I used him for my motivation throughout my career because I always knew that he was working on something. So, that part will be missed a little bit."
James and the Cavs will host Bryant and the Lakers on February 10 in Cleveland, before the superstars meet for the final time on March 10 in Los Angeles.
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