CLEVELAND (AP) — When he was a kid, LeBron James looked up on his bedroom wall where Kobe Bryant hung in reverence.
“I wanted to be just like him, man,” James said Tuesday.
Two days after Bryant announced he would retire after this season, James expressed his gratitude and love for the U.S. Olympic teammate who pushed him to greatness and will leave the NBA as one of its most celebrated players.
Following Cleveland’s morning shoot-around before playing Washington, James spent several minutes reflecting on Bryant’s career and the impact he had on the Cavaliers star.
“We’ve always competed against one another and we always wanted to dethrone each other,” James said. “But we always had that mutual respect because we knew how much we put into the game. I’ve always voiced my opinion about Kobe, how great Kobe is, and obviously there will never be another one of him in our league. Ever.”
James spent much of his interview session praising Bryant, who announced Sunday that his 20th NBA season will be his last. Bryant begins his farewell tour Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the city where his basketball journey began.
As Bryant was taking his first steps in what would become a stellar career, James was in Akron, Ohio, doing everything he could to mimic a player with unrivaled offensive skills.
“In high school I wore a nappy afro because of Kobe Bryant,” James said. “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. And then, just being a competitor, he took me to that next level, and understanding how important competition is and just have a willingness to never die.”
James rattled off some of Bryant’s signature games and moves: his 81-point game in 2006, a game-winning shot against Phoenix, a tip dunk against Indiana, a behind-the-back, 360-degree dunk against Denver. James can replay all of them in his mind, and he’s struggling with the idea that he’ll never get to see Bryant add to that list.
“To know that it’s coming to an end is truly sad for me,” he said.
During his offseason workouts, James said the thought of Bryant being in a gym somewhere else, perfecting his crossover or that unstoppable fade-away jumper, pushed him to do more.
“I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant,” he said. “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. 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.’
“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 does have a single regret when it comes to Bryant. It still stings him that he couldn’t get the Cavaliers to the 2009 NBA Finals for a matchup with Bryant, a showdown craved by hoop fans everywhere. One of them has played in the finals since 2007, but not once against each other.
“I know the world wanted to see it,” James said. “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.”