LeBron James

On Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and being human

On Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and being human

After passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Saturday night, LeBron James was asked about the significance of moving past a legend. James then spoke for five minutes about Bryant’s impact on his life while the craziest media scrum I’d ever been a part of hung on his every word. 

As he sat in his locker reminiscing about the man known as the “Black Mamba,” James couldn’t get over the magnitude of it all and how everything came back to Philadelphia when it came to he and Bryant.

“I mean, it's just too much. It's too much. The story is too much. It doesn't make sense. And just make a long story short, now I'm here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia, where he's from, the first time I ever met him [was here and] he gave me his shoes at All-Star weekend. It's surreal. Doesn't make no sense. The universe just puts things in your life and I guess when you're living the right way, or you're just giving everything to whatever you're doing, things happen organically and it's not supposed to make sense but it just does.”

As someone who watched both careers blossom from afar, it was a surreal moment to be a part of.

The next day, Bryant, the Philadelphia native, 18-time All-Star, five-time NBA champ, two-time scoring champ, 2007-08 league MVP and unquestioned future first ballot Hall of Famer, died tragically in a helicopter crash. He was 41.

***

The son of former Sixer Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia but famously starred at Lower Merion High School. I can remember being 11 years old and seeing the 17-year-old Bryant on the cover of local newspapers, sunglasses propped on his forehead, standing at a podium as he declared for the NBA draft.

In that same draft, there was a badass point guard out of Georgetown that was taken No. 1 overall by the Sixers. To a nerdy kid with a bowl cut, buck teeth and gold frame glasses, Allen Iverson was the baddest man on the planet. He could do wrong in my eyes. I had all the Reebok Question and Answer sneakers for as long as he was a Sixer.

There was one exception: The year I begged my parents for the Adidas KB8 II. I just remember thinking about how cool Kobe was. He faced scrutiny for going straight to the NBA from high school. He was from Philly. He won the dunk contest at 18. He was an All-Star at 19 and took Michael Jordan head on. He was brash. He was exciting. Most of all, he was also kind of a badass — well before the "Mamba mentality" even became a thing.

(AP Images)

***

I loved Iverson up close and admired Bryant from afar, but those worlds collided during the 2001 NBA Finals. Iverson carried a team of hard-nosed castoffs. Bryant was the sidekick of Shaquille O’Neal at his most unstoppable. 

After Iverson propelled the Sixers to an improbable Game 1 victory, Bryant helped the Lakers take the next three, telling a fan that he intended “to cut your hearts out” in Game 5. Well, he was right. Bryant crushed the hopes of everyone in the Delaware Valley and denied Iverson in the closest the Hall of Famer ever got to capturing a title.

Bryant became enemy No. 1 for what he did to the basketball player I idolized.

Then in 2003, it turned from a silly sports hatred into something else entirely. Bryant was arrested in connection with an investigation of a sexual assault complaint filed by a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado. While Bryant admitted to adultery, he said he believed the encounter to be consensual.

Though he went on to cement his legacy as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live in the following years, it was hard to reconcile this. 

***

In 2015-16, Bryant decided that he was going to retire. The first stop on what turned out to be his farewell tour was Philadelphia. Though he had a rocky relationship with the city and its fans, Bryant and Philly made amends and showed their mutual respect for one another.

When “a 6-6 guard from Lower Merion High School” was announced by PA announcer Matt Cord, it was met with a warm reception. Fans then cheered as Bryant poured in 20 points in his final game at the Wells Fargo Center.

Bryant, the person, was just different at that point of his life. Humbled. Smiling. Not the same cocky kid with the sunglasses on his forehead.

In the time during his retirement, Bryant seemed to devote his life to his family. He could be seen mentoring his daughter, Gianna, who also tragically died in the accident at just 13. He took “Gigi,” the second of his four daughters, to basketball games all the time. You’d see Kobe in her ear, pointing out things on the floor. She wanted to go to powerhouse UConn and carve her own path to the WNBA.

There also just seemed to be a genuine father-daughter love between the two. She appeared to share her dad’s competitiveness and brashness. Kobe recently shared this about his daughter on Jimmy Kimmel Live:

“The best thing that happens is when we go out and she’ll be standing next to me and fans will come up to me like ‘Hey, you gotta have a boy, you and (Vanessa) gotta have a boy — somebody to carry on the legacy and the tradition’ and (Gigi) will be like ‘Oy, I got this. We don’t need a boy for that. I got this!'”

(AP Images)

***

One of the last things Bryant shared on his Twitter page was a video interview Iverson did for the Players’ Tribune. Iverson, who seems at peace with the mistakes he's made and struggles he's had, was almost prescient in his words.

“I’ve made a billion mistakes. I’ve done things right a billion times. I’m human. And that’s that. I don’t read no comments. I don’t read the comments. Got too much love around me, too many great people around me to let the evil things override that. My love around me is too powerful.”

Knowing he'd have a good chance to pass Bryant, James wrote "Mamba 4 Life" on his sneakers. Bryant wasn’t perfect and so his legacy, as everlasting as it is, won’t be either.

I mourn him and his young daughter while respecting the greatness of his career and having conflicted feelings on his actions in life.

What we can all agree on is that he should’ve had more time to add to his legacy and spend with his family.

LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

LeBron James enjoying Ben Simmons' evolution

There was a little over eight minutes left in the game. Ben Simmons was being guarded by Danny Green. There was nobody there to protect the rim as Simmons had the ball at the top of the key.

Simmons didn’t hesitate. He didn’t make a move. He simply blew by Green, used his sinewy frame to create space and then threw down a vicious two-handed dunk.

In a game matched up against his mentor LeBron James, Simmons kind of looked like … well, LeBron James in leading the Sixers to a 108-91 win over the Lakers Saturday night (see observations).

“At the end of the game, they actually came up and started guarding him,” Brett Brown said. “So I put him in a bunch of pick-and-rolls as the point guard. Put him in a lot of elbow action, offensively. And then defensively, you look at the disturbance that Matisse [Thybulle] and Ben caused. ... He was really special tonight on a very talented court.”

It would’ve been great if the Sixers just got what they did out of Simmons on the offensive end (28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists), but he was also stellar defensively.

James had eight turnovers on the night and much of the credit for that goes to Simmons (four steals) and the rookie Thybulle (five steals). Part of the credit also has to go to Brown for his defensive strategy against James — hedging on screens and not allowing James to get mismatches.

For as unique as the pick-and-roll pairing of James and star big man Anthony Davis is, the Sixers have a unique duo to defend it in Simmons and veteran Al Horford. While both L.A. All-Stars got their numbers, they also combined for 13 turnovers and never truly got into a rhythm.

But this story is about Simmons. 

In the nine games since Joel Embiid went on the shelf, Simmons is averaging 21.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.6 steals a game. Over his last three games, he’s 21 of 29 (72.4 percent) from the line. With so much talk about his fourth-quarter scoring, he was 3 of 4 for six points and three assists in the final period Saturday.

The jump shot hasn’t come along like many hoped it would, but Simmons’ game is clearly evolving.

“I was out there at times just watching him just figuring things out, whether it’s laying it up or making the pass,” Horford said. “It’s amazing. He’s coming down the lane and it’s just like, ‘Good luck.’ He’s just playing with a lot of confidence right now, so that’s good to see.”

At practice Friday, Brown was asked how you go about slowing down James. He talked about not being able to guard him 1-on-1: “Here he comes, straight at you, good luck.”

James still got his, scoring 29 points and, in the process, passing Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Now playing for Bryant’s former team, James reminisced about how he got to know the “Black Mamba.”

Bryant is now a spectator as James passed him. James, now 35, knows he’s in the twilight of his career. Though he appears to still have elite basketball left, he spoke like a man that senses his own mortality.

While this game wasn’t a full-blown torch passing, there was a bit of that vibe as James spoke.

“It’s pretty amazing,” James said on having Bryant watching him now. “That’s pretty much how I’m going to be when I’m done playing, being able to come back and watch this beautiful game and hopefully there’s somebody still playing the game at a high level. Like the guy across the hallway, Ben Simmons, I can sit and watch him and see how much he continues to grow and watch him do what he does … he’s growing every day and it’s a pretty cool thing to see him.”

Perhaps shooting to pass James on the all-time scoring list in the future is a bit lofty, but the Sixers will take more peformances like Saturday's from Simmons in the present.

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Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris outduel LeBron James, Anthony Davis in impressive win

Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris outduel LeBron James, Anthony Davis in impressive win

BOX SCORE

With no Joel Embiid or Josh Richardson and LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the vaunted Lakers in town, things didn’t seem to line up well.

Apparently, you can throw everything out the window when the Sixers are at home.

Led by Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, the Sixers took down the best team in the West, 108-91, in a turnover-filled game at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night.

The win improves the Sixers 21-2 at home, tied with the Bucks for best in the NBA, and 30-17 overall. They’ll host the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win:

Containing the King

James had five turnovers in the first half and Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were a huge part of that. 

In an early possession when Thybulle got switched onto James, James wisely decided to use his sizeable weight advantage and back the rookie down. To Thybulle’s credit, he hung in there and then was able to use his lightning-quick hands to poke the ball away from James. Thybulle had four steals in the first half.

In the first quarter, Brett Brown stuck to his usual substitution patterns. Then he adjusted and matched Simmons up with James. James is arguably the best player on the planet and he’s going to get his (29 points, eight assists and seven rebounds), but Simmons didn’t make it easy.

James passed Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA's all-time scoring list in third quarter. He nearly sparked a comeback, but the Sixers did enough down the stretch to keep the Lakers at arm's length.

Harris and Simmons carry the load

With Embiid and Richardson out, the Sixers are missing 38.4 points a game. They needed other players to step up and carry the scoring load. Harris and Simmons did just that.

With Simmons attracting much of the attention, Harris took advantage of the various mismatches he had. He muscled the smaller Danny Green. He drove by the bigger Dwight Howard. He hit threes (3 of 8), he was strong in the midrange, he got to the basket — it was a game that truly showed off his scoring versatility.

He finished with 29 points on 10 of 20. 

After a down game in Toronto, this was the version of Simmons we’d seen since Embiid went down. He was decisive, aggressive and attacked the rim with authority. While L.A. was trying to claw back in the game in the fourth, he drove right by Green, outmuscled him and slammed with two hands. He had another big and-one drive on Green with just under three minutes left.

He had 28 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He did have five of the Sixers' 23 turnovers, but you'll live with that when he's playing like this.

A.D. vs. Horford

Coming in, you figured Anthony Davis and Al Horford would be matched up. It was a fun one to watch. The savvy veteran and 26-year-old superstar were going at each other hard.

It looked like head coach Frank Vogel wanted to attack Horford, but the 33-year-old looked spry and up for the challenge. Davis’ stat line looks good (31 points on 13 of 22), but a lot of that damage came with Horford out. 

With Embiid out, Horford’s play has been up and down. He was definitely up in this one. He had 16 points and nailed a pair of huge threes and a midrange fadeaway with the Sixers clinging to a lead late in the fourth.

Shake up in the starting lineup

Down two starters, Brown started second-year guard Shake Milton. Milton fumbled a Simmons’ pass on a cut to the lane, but that was one of the few things that went wrong.

Milton essentially filled Richardson’s role as the ball handler next to Simmons. They had something going with the dribble handoff early that led to a couple easy baskets.

To his credit, Milton also stood tall as James came at him on a couple drives. It took serious guts. Despite nothing eye-popping on the stat sheet (seven points, nine rebounds, three assists), Milton looked like he belonged out there.

Tough break for Zhaire Smith

Second-year guard Zhaire Smith saw his first NBA action of the 2019-20 season. Unfortunately, he got just under three minutes in before suffering an ankle sprain. He did not return.

It’s a tough break for the 20-year-old who’s already been through so much. The 2018 first-round pick essentially had a redshirt rookie year after suffering a broken foot and a serious allergic reaction. He's spent most of this season in Delaware with the Blue Coats.

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