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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James said knowing this will be Kobe Bryant’s last season is “truly sad for me” and that he regrets that the pair never faced off in the NBA Finals.
“I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain in 2009 for the fans, for us, to meet in the Finals,” James said Tuesday, looking back on the 2008-09 season when his Cleveland Cavaliers led the league with a 66-16 record and Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers were right behind him at 65-17. “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 and the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals 4-2, with the Lakers going on to beat the Magic in the championship round 4-1. With Bryant and the Pau Gasol-led Lakers hitting their stride at the same time LeBron James was on the top team in the East with Cleveland and later the Miami Heat, a Finals matchup seemed inevitable to observers. However, James said he never assumed it would occur.
“Obviously there was so much made about it, from commercials to media talk, to people just talking about the Lakers versus the Cavs, Kobe versus LeBron, Kobe versus LeBron, Kobe versus LeBron, but I couldn’t do that to my teammates to kind of assume,” James said. “That’s not my job. I’ve seen the stat that since ’07 either he has or I’ve been in the Finals, but we’ve never matched up. And that definitely sucks. Not only for us two being competitors, wanting to go against each other in the Finals, but also for the fans.”
Indeed, Nike anticipated as much, centering an ad campaign around Bryant and James in puppet form jostling for NBA supremacy. Bryant played in the Finals from 2008 to 2010 and faced Boston twice and Orlando once. James played in the Finals from 2011 to 2015 and has played San Antonio (twice), Dallas, Oklahoma City and Golden State. While their paths never crossed with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line, James spoke openly about his shared history with Bryant dating back to his high school days. He looked up to Bryant as a trailblazer he could emulate as he skipped college and went straight to the professional ranks.