“I’m Not Ready but here I go” is how LeBron James began the Instagram post, and man, if that isn’t every goddamn one of us right now. The Lakers will return to the court at Staples Center on Friday, welcoming the Trail Blazers to Los Angeles for their first game since the shocking, horrifying death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Sunday. LeBron James will play basketball for the first time since the tragedy, which came just one day after he passed Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. That night, the two legends spoke on the phone for what would be the final time.
“It’s just too much. It’s too much. The story is too much,” James told reporters in Philadelphia last Saturday after moving ahead of Bryant in the record book but before the tragedy. “It’s surreal. It doesn’t make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life.”
James was talking about the good things: all the opportunities that paved the way to this latest milestone, and the chance not only to achieve it in the Lakers uniform that Bryant wore with distinction for two decades, but to do it in Kobe’s hometown. Sometimes the universe puts other things in your life, too. Right now, it has put something dark and daunting in LeBron’s, impossible to manage but unavoidable all the same: the need to find a new normal for himself, and a way to carry on, to keep “continuing to move the game forward,” as Kobe put it in his final tweet.
In the moment, it was a compliment, a show of respect. Now, those words—the last ones Bryant would ever share in public—read more like a charge, an assignment of responsibility punctuating a relationship that spanned nearly 20 years and defined two eras of NBA basketball, even if it never quite found the form that basketball fans always hoped it would.
It’s easy to forget now, with LeBron having long since surpassed Kobe as a player in the estimation of most of the basketball-watching world. In the early years of this century, though, LeBron was like the rest of us—a fan watching, awestruck, as Bryant became the first guard ever to make the leap from taking his SATs to taking the court at the highest level of professional basketball.
“It’s another guy that I looked up to when I was in grade school and high school,” James said last Saturday, in a lengthy postgame press conference about Bryant that now takes on the tone of a eulogy. “Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration. It was like, ‘wow.’ Seeing a kid, 17 years old, come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation. He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do.”
The first time they met, at All-Star Weekend in 2002, James was still a teen in high school. He was so over the moon at Kobe giving him “a special red, white and blue colorway of his signature sneakers” that he wore them in a marquee matchup against fellow top prospect Carmelo Anthony—even though they were a size too small.
LeBron also walked in Kobe’s footsteps when it came to testing his wares against pros. As a prep star at Lower Merion High School in 1995, Bryant famously practiced against members of the 76ers, including former North Carolina star and no. 3 draft pick Jerry Stackhouse; he reportedly “more than held his own and even beat Stackhouse in a one-on-one game.” Fast-forward six years. James—not yet a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, but already a high school megastar receiving national attention—gets an invitation to suit up for a run at Hoops the Gym in Chicago with a bunch of NB